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8. Using Capital Letters

English uses capital letters to point out important words.  This is the one element of English grammar that always follows its rules.  There are no lists of exceptions to memorize.  That makes it easier for people who are learning English.  All they need to do is:

You will see many examples in your everyday life of the rules being violated by advertisers, by graffiti artists and by Internet users.  That does not, however, change the rules.  It is important to write English correctly on applications, in resumes, in business letters and in other formal situations if you want the reader to have a high opinion of you.

Rule 1: All sentences begin with a capital letter, even sentences that only consist of one word.

            a. This is my house. (statement)

            b. Are you going to school? (question)

            c. Watch out for the truck! (exclamation)

            d. Stop!

            e. Wait!

            f. Yesterday, when John woke up in the morning, he decided to eat breakfast before getting dressed to go to work in the city.

Rule 2: The proper name, the name of a specific person or thing, begins with a capital letter.  All other important words in the name must also start with a capital letter.  Words that do not need to be written with a capital letter unless they are the first word of the name are a, an, and, the, of, to, by, etc.  (Following each proper name are one or more common names of the same type of person or thing which do not need a capital letter.)

             a. Henry David Thoreau (a man, a writer)

            b. Empire State Building (a building, a monument, a sky scraper)

            c. Grand Canyon (a canyon, a geographical wonder, a tourist attraction)

            d. Atlantic Ocean (an ocean, a body of water, a sea)

            e. Metropolitan Museum of Art (a museum, an institute, a building)

            f. Ford Explorer (an automobile, a sport utility vehicle, a car)

            g. Harvard University (a college, a university, a school)

            h. Union of South Africa (a country, a union, a nation)

            i.  Saudi Arabia (a country, a kingdom, a monarchy)

            j. Saturday (a day, the weekend, tomorrow)

            k. September (a month, beginning of school, end of summer)

            l. Memorial Day (a holiday, a special occasion, a vacation day)

Rule 3: Titles of books, songs, stories, works of art, magazine articles, tests, and other written materials must begin with a capital letter.  Every other important word of the title must also begin with a capital letter.  Words that do not need a capital letter unless they are the first word of the title are a, an, and, of, to, the, etc.

            a. Winnie the Pooh

            b. To Kill a Mockingbird

            c. The Merchant of Venice

            d. The Star-spangled Banner

            e. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

            f. The New York Times

            g. How to Win Friends and Influence People

            h. The Carolina Test of Student Ability

Rule 4: The letter I, when used as a pronoun referring to yourself must always be written as a capital letter.

            a. I am not happy.

            b. Am I the first person here?

            c. Tell me what I have to do.

Rule 5: The first word of a direct quotation must begin with a capital letter.

            a. "Who's been sleeping in my bed?" Pappa Bear cried.

            b. The President said, "Ask not what your country can do for you."

            c. The teacher asked, "Can you answer this question?"

Rule 6: Titles of people when used with their names or in place of their names must begin with a capital letter.

            a. My boss is Mister Smith.

            b. "Look out, Mister! You're in the way."

            c. The members of the church waited for Reverend Jones.

            d. The captain yelled at Sergeant Harris.

            e. The sergeant replied, "Yes, sir, Captain.  I understand."

            f. My favorite queen is Queen Elizabeth of England.

There are other uses for capital letters in English, but these six rules cover most of the situations you will find in your writing.  I started to write about abbreviations, but the more I thought about them, the more confused I became.  In general, abbreviations (short forms of whole words usually made by using the first letter or letters of the whole word with a period at the end to show the word is not complete) follow the same rules for capital letters as complete words do: if the whole word would begin with a capital, then so would the abbreviation.

            a. My boss is Mr. Smith.

            b. The members of the church waited for Rev. Jones.

            c. The captain yelled at Sgt. Harris.   

            d. I work for American Telephone and Telegraph. (I work for A.T.&T.).

Certain factors have made the situation much more confusing.  The United States has adopted a two-letter code for all of the states.  Pennsylvania used to be abbreviated as Penna. or Pa.  Now it is PA  .  California used to be Cal. or Calif., but now it is CA  .  Advertisers add or take away capital letters whenever they feel like it in a attempt to make their ads more effective.  The internet with its domain names and e-mail addresses adding or deleting capital letters according to the requirements of a variety of computer software protocols has also thrown away the traditional grammar rules. 

But in spite of all these factors, the rules of correct writing remain the same.  Follow them and you will be seen as an intelligent, well-educated person by anybody who reads what you write.  (Unless you write stupid things in a correct way.)

c. 2003   Williamsport, PA  17701       

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Exercise A: Re-write these sentences on the lines and put capital letters where they belong.

1. the mayor of san juan, mayor ortega, decided to retire sunday, july 16.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

2. my friend, tom wilson, bought a new honda accord last week in san francisco.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

3. yesterday, i finished reading lord of the rings.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

4. the president of general motors was interviewed in the july issue of newsweek.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

5. david johnson drove his chevy blazer off the delaware memorial bridge last friday.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

6. when i opened the new york times, i read that lieutenant martin bailey had accused his commanding officer, colonel dunlap, of selling secret information to a north korean agent.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________________________________

7. alan attended a lecture by professor c. r. klein on his treatise, "chemical properties of popular diet foods."

____________________________________________________________________________________________

8. mary yelled to her little brother, "shut the door! it's freezing in here."

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Answers to Exercise A: Following are only the words that should have been written with a capital letter.

1. The, San Juan, Mayor Ortega, Sunday, July

2. My, Tom Wilson, Honda Accord, San Francisco

3. Yesterday, I, Lord, Rings

4. The, General Motors, July, Newsweek

5. David Johnson, Chevy Blazer, Delaware Memorial Bridge, Friday

6. When, I, New York Times, I, Lieutenant Martin Bailey, Colonel Dunlap, North Korean

7. Alan, Professor C. R. Klein, "Chemical Properties,  Popular Diet Foods

8. Mary, Shut, It's

The End

 

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