I get a lot of different pieces of writing from a lot of different people. One of the first things I look at when scanning each piece is how the writer used capital letters. If every other word is capitalized, then I know the writer doesn’t understand capitalization rules and probably is a marginal writer, at best.
For some reason, a lot of people never learned the basic capitalization rules in school. And in the world we’re living in today, if you didn’t learn the elements of English usage in school, good luck learning them anywhere else. It’s weird, though, because even total non-writers usually can put together some writing that’s fairly decent in terms of flow and meaning, yet they’re stumped on how and when to use capital letters.
There are a million grammar rules, with more than a few that cover capitalization. Here’s the easiest capitalization rule that will instantly improve your writing, even if you ignore all the other rules:
Stop capitalizing so many words! The vast majority of English words require no capital letters to start them, so lay off the shift key.
Other capitalization rules
Most people have more trouble remembering what not to capitalize than what to capitalize. For the most part, we know what kinds of words need capital letters: people’s names, names of musical acts, streets, cities, states, countries, company names, product and brand names.
- Jimmy Page
- The Romantics
- Bourbon Street
- South Carolina
- Best Buy
- Dove soap
That last one might fool you. Shouldn’t “soap” be capitalized if it comes after “Dove”? Not unless it’s part of the official product name. Dove is a good brand to make an example of.
My (brief) research on Dove.com didn’t turn up any usage of the term “Dove Soap” or “Dove soap.” Dove calls its cleansers by other names, which, when used as official product names, need capital letters:
- Dove Beauty Bar
- Dove Body Wash
- Dove Body Polish
- Dove Hand Wash
But notice, if you’re using the cleanser types generically, you don’t need capital letters:
- A beauty bar by Dove
- A container of body wash by Dove
- I have some body polish made by Dove
- Dove makes a good hand wash
The underlined words aren’t proper nouns—unless they’re part of a brand/product name. You would (should) never write, “I just love this new Body Wash,” or “My uncle keeps stealing my Body Polish and using it on his car.”
“Uncle” leads to another of the important capitalization rules.
In the sentence, “I’m glad Uncle Dave is my uncle,” “uncle” by itself is a generic reference, so no capital letter. “Uncle Dave” is a formal name, so use a capital “U.”
Right: President Richard Nixon.
Wrong: Richard Nixon used to be the President.
Wrong: Richard Nixon used to be the President of the United States.
Right: Richard Nixon used to be the president.
Right: Richard Nixon used to be the president of the United States.
Very, very wrong: Richard Nixon, who used to be the President, used Bath Soap in the Shower all the time. He liked Cotton Wash Cloths and Back Scrubbers. He always used After Shave Lotion because it made him feel like a Man.
These examples are silly, but they contain a lot of important capitalization rules that will help you communicate better in whatever you write.
(This blog post is an example of how to get a lot of mileage out of your blog topics by breaking them into many smaller pieces. With the topic “capitalization rules,” I can write many more posts, because I only touched on some of the elements of the subject in this one.)