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When to (and When Not to) Use Capital Letters in English? Part 3

This is Part 3 of the Capital Letters in English topic, and it continues with several more categories we need capital letters for. We start with the titles of books, articles, and movies which, compared to other languages, have some unique capitalization rules.

The table of contents for this post is below the Color Legend. If you can’t find what you are looking for there, check out “When to (and When Not to) Use Capital Letters in English? Part 1″, and “When to (and When Not to) Use Capital Letters in English? Part 2” (open in a new tab.)

In Part 2, we made some comparisons with other languages. We will mention differences here when appropriate as well because capitalization rules vary from language to language which is why the rules in English may be confusing for some learners.

Color Legend

When words are highlighted in this color, it means that they should not be capitalized

When words are highlited in this color, it means that we should always use capital letters

If you see words highlighted in this color, it means that there are exceptions and the words can be capitalized or not, depending on usage.

Most of the words highlighted in this color are in a language other than English. The idea is to illustrate how different English can be compared to other languages.

1. Titles of books and works of art 📚

When it comes to the titles of books, articles, and songs, as well as movies, we write capital letters for each of the following words in any title:

  1. Verbs (even the verb to be)
  2. Nouns
  3. Adjectives
  4. Adverbs
  5. Pronouns (we, you, this that, who, what, etc.)
  6. Phrasal verbs (dress up, check out)

Examples

Look1 Who‘s5 Talking1

Rolling1 in the Deep2

Lord2 of the Rings2

As you can see above, not all the words in titles need capital letters, and here is a short summary of which ones don’t according to the AP Stylebook, which this site is trying to follow.

Capitalize all words in a title except articles (a, an, the); prepositions of three or fewer letters (for, of, on, up, etc.); and conjunctions of three or fewer letters (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet, etc.) unless any of those start or end the title.

AP Stylebook

Have a look at the example below:

a photo of a cake and  berries - capital letters in English - book titles

I found this recipe in the book Desserts to Die For

Also, the titles of large works such as books and movies are italicized, while for smaller works, like articles, we use quotation marks as shown below.

Encyclopedia Britannica

“The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1925 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, was unsuccessful upon publication but is now considered a classic of American fiction and has often been called the Great American Novel.”

Martinez, J. (2021, June 4). “The Great Gatsby. Encyclopedia Britannica” (not a word-for-word citation)

1.1 Fictional characters and places 👻

Speaking of books, authors and artists create fictional characters we get to know and grow to love. And here we are not talking only about characters like Anne (of Green Gables), Tom Sawyer, or Harry Potter that are human, and it is only natural that their names are capitalized.

We are talking about characters and entire worlds that are made up and cannot possibly exist in the real world but are just as real anyway. They, too, have capital letters.

Harry Potter studied at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry* in the Scottish Highlands, and some of his core classes included Defence Against the Dark Arts* and History of Magic*.

*Neither the school nor the classes Harry Potter studied are real. However, because that is what they are called, their names are capitalized.

Another well-known and much-loved fictional place is the Shire, an idyllic and beautiful part of Middle Earth, with mossy rooftop houses, homes of hobbits, most looking like Bilbo Baggins’ own Bag End.

A picture of Bag End by Tom Hall - Capital letters in English for fictional wolds and characters.
Bag End. Picture by Tom Hall

Here are some more examples:

Examples

Is the Joker Batman‘s biggest foe in Gotham City?
Did you know that Santa Claus did not originally wear red but green?

1. 2 Quoted speech

Now is a good time to mention something, which is often seen in books. The first letter of a full sentence that is directly quoted within another sentence needs to be capitalized. Focus on the final part of the quote below.

Mrs. Barry, not hearing or not comprehending, merely shook hands and said kindly:

“How are you?”

“I am well in body although considerable rumpled up in spirit, thank you, ma’am,” said Anne gravely. Then aside to Marilla in an audible whisper, “There wasn’t anything startling in that, was there, Marilla?”

– Lucy M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

There is no need for capital letters if it is not a direct quote.

My newphew said, “Sometimes I don’t want to go to school because it’s too boring.”

My nephew said “school was boring” sometimes.

2. Other written documents📃 

The titles of other official written documents, such as (international) treaties, conventions, or contracts also have capital letters.

Capital letters in English for official documents and treaties - A painting - Declaration of Independence - By John Trumbull, American artist (1756–1843) - US Capitol

The Declaration of Independence was signed on August 2, 1776, in the Pennsylvania State House.

By John Trumbull, American artist (1756–1843) – US Capitol, Public Domain, source

Let’s look at the examples below. (Be careful which parts of the title are capitalized):

Examples

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was adopted in 1979 to help promote the principle of equality between men and women.

What were the three main terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763?

The First and the Second Geneva Conventions protect persons at war, respectively, on land, and at sea, while the Third Geneva Convention applies to prisoners of war.

The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is the first public health treaty of the world which came into force in 2005.

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is a list compiled by UNESCO to ensure the protection of important cultural heritages from around the world.

4. Nationality words and languages 

In English, nationality words and the words for the languages different nations speak are usually the same (with some exceptions, of course). That may not be the case in other languages, however. Also, in English, both are capitalized whereas in other languages it can be different depending on the language.

4.1 Proper adjectives 👔 

Proper adjectives, as mentioned before, are derived from proper nouns. One way to talk about people’s nationalities is to use proper adjectives derived from the name of the country they come from. Just as we always capitalize proper nouns, we always capitalize proper adjectives.

Examples

My name is Nea, and I come from Germany. I am German.

My mom is English, and my dad is Spanish.

We use the same words to talk about other things related to other aspects of a given country, for example, language* culture, food, nature, etc.

Food, culture, and nature examples

If you are interested in reading classic Spanish literature, start with Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

Many different customs and traditions from all around the world form the American culture.

The key aspects of Finnish nature are the lakes and the deep-green forests that seem to be all around, even in the most populated areas of the country.

Is Indian food the spiciest food in the world?

*When it comes to languages, there are exceptions, and people often get confused. For example, there are many American movies or American cars, but there is no American language. In Canada, people do not speak Canadian. They speak English and French. People in Syria don’t speak Syrian, but Arabic.

Now that languages were mentioned, let’s point something out. We capitalize the languages someone speaks or studies at school but do not use capital letters for the other school subjects.

Languages, school subjects, and course name examples

I study English and Spanish. I love languages very much, but I like chemistry too.

She doesn’t like biology at all, and that’s why she has low grades.

THE BRITANNICA DICTIONARY

“When you are talking about the name of a specific class or course, such as Math 241 or Chemistry 100, always capitalize it. Capitalize course titles such as History of the French Revolution and Childhood Psychology.”

When to Capitalize School Subjects

Let’s check if these capitalization rules apply to other languages as well. Focus on the words in bold. (EN = English, FIN = Finnish, BG = Bulgarian, DE = German, RUS = Russian)

Language Comparison

She is German, but she speaks Finnish and Swedish well.

Hän on saksalainen, mutta hän puhuu hyvin suomea ja ruotsia.

Тя е германка, но говори добре финландски и шведски.

Sie ist Deutsche, spricht aber gut Finnisch und Schwedisch.

Она немка, но она хорошо говорит и по-фински и по-шведски.

There are five languages listed above. Only in two of them do we need capital letters, as the examples show. So, technically speaking, there is a big chance that many learners of English as a foreign language find this challenging.

*However, do not forget that German uses capital letters for all nouns, and all the words we are focusing on above are nouns.

4.2 Other nationality words 💂‍♀️

So far we were talking about proper adjectives1 but in the case of languages what seems to be a proper adjective is actually a proper noun2.

Here is how we would try to confirm that:

She is German1 and she speaks very good English2.

In the above sentence, the word German is a proper adjective, which is why it is capitalized. Then, the word good is also an adjective, but it doesn’t need a capital letter because it is not a proper adjective. Last, the word English is a proper noun because, one, that is the name of the language, and two, it is modified by the adjective good. (That is what adjectives do, they modify nouns.)

That being said, we can talk about the nationalities of people not only by using the derivative words above. There are other nationality nouns we can use, but not for all nationalities.

Country (the place of origin, or the place of acquired citizenship)

Denmark

Finland

Sweden

Turkey

Refers to a person, the language, and the people

Danish

Finnish

Swedish

Turkish

Refers to a person or the people, not the language

a Dane/ the Danes

a Finn/ the Finns

a Swede/ the Swedes

a Turk/ the Turks

This is only for illustration purposes. There are more entries in this category that are not shown here.

5. Time periods and historical events

Capital letters in English (historical events) - a picture of the historic archeological city of Petra, Jordan
The archeological city of Petra, Jordan

The various periods or major events in human history have been given names so they, too, need capital letters.

No matter how tragic historical events and periods have been, they mark different milestones in our development as humans and deserve some special attention.

Examples

The first stone tools were developed during the early Stone Age.

In 1348, the Black Death, also known as the Plague reached Paris and London.

The Great Hunger, also called the Irish Potato Famine, began in 1845 and lasted seven years, leaving behind a million people dead from starvation.

During the Industrial Revolution which continued for almost a century, there was a rise in the number of factories that needed cheap workers, and that lead to the increase of child labor.

The Second World War, also called World War II, began in September 1939 and ended in September 1945.

HISTORY.COM

Generally described as taking place from the 14th century to the 17th century, the Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature, and art.

Renaissance

5.1 Other events 

We use capital letters for other events as well, anything from sports events to concerts, festivals, conferences, and assemblies or movements (Black Lives Matter).

Capital letters in English for events - the Super Bowl

When it comes to sports events in the US, there is only one winner: the Super Bowl. Its viewership even beats the presidential debates.

Examples

The cycling competition Tour de France takes place each year in France and is watched by 3.5 billion viewers worldwide.

The hard rock and heavy metal music festival Monsters of Rock first took place in 1980 in England.

In 1814 and 1815, the Congress of Vienna worked to reorganize Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.

INSIDER

“The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was to protest the systemic disenfranchisement of black Americans and happened on August 28, 1963.”

14 of the biggest marches and protests in American history

6. Relatives🤱

We capitalize the words for mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, etc. when using them instead of a name, usually when addressing the person or when followed by the name of the relative we are talking about.

You are the best, Mom! Capital letters in English - a mother holding her baby.

You are the best, Mom!

Examples

Hi, Dad! What’s up?

How long before we get there, Mom?

Did you call Aunt Betty for Christmas?

I saw Uncle John the other day.

Do not use capital letters for the words mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, etc. when preceded by a possessive pronoun.

No capital letter examples

I saw your mom at the store.

I met her uncle 20 years ago.

7. Capitalizing B in black

When it comes to capitalizing the word black, here is when it should be done according to the Associated Press. It is important to pay close attention to context.

Capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.

Associated Press Stylebook

7.1 As for w in white

There seems to be a sort of a debate on this issue, and people seem to be divided but some argue that w in white should also be capitalized for the same reasons. As the example below demonstrates, for example, the CNN are doing it in their reporting.

CNN

“Kim Potter, the former Minnesota police officer who mistook her firearm for her Taser and fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop in April. Earlier Monday, the prosecution and defense laid out their closing arguments in the case, in which Potter, who is White, faces charges of first-degree and second-degree manslaughter.”

Kim Potter’s fatal Taser mix-up was a ‘colossal screwup,’ prosecution says. The defense says a mistake is not a crime

Here is what the Associated Press says about it:

AP style will continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses. This decision follows our move last month to capitalize Black in such uses. We consulted with a wide group of people internally and externally around the globe and considered a variety of commentary in making these decisions.

John Daniszewski, Vice President for Standards, Associated Press, Why
we will lowercase white

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