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Grammar Tips & Tidbits


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Capitalization―Part I


Capitalization is kids' stuff, right? We all know to capitalize the first letter of each sentence and to use capital letters for personal names, company names, days of the week, months, holidays, streets, cities, states, and countries. What more is there to know?

As usual, the English language has a few twists in store for us. This week's tip will focus on rules of capitalization that you may not know or may have forgotten. The following rules are based on Section 3 of The Gregg Reference Manual, tenth edition.¹

Rule #1: Do not capitalize expressions that are now considered common phrases but originally contained proper nouns or adjectives. For example, do not capitalize the following phrases: arabic numbers, good china, roman numerals, or plaster of paris.

Rule #2: Capitalize an independent question within a sentence. Example: The question is, Where shall we go for lunch today?

Rule #3: Capitalize family titles like mother, uncle, or grandfather when they stand alone or are followed by a personal name. Example: I'm planning to call Mother this evening. However, do not capitalize family titles when possessive words like my or your precede them. Example: I'm planning to call my mother this evening. The exception occurs when the words uncle, aunt, or cousin are used with a first name, forming a unit. In this case, the family title should be capitalized, even when preceded by a possessive. Example: I'll call my Uncle Ron to see if he is coming for Christmas.

Rule #4: Capitalize the words north, south, east, and west when they indicate specific regions. Examples: down South, out West. Do not capitalize these words when they indicate direction,  general location, geography, or climate. Examples: Turn east on Highway 265 and then go north on I-71. You also would not capitalize westerly winds or southern humidity. However, you should capitalize words that refer to people in a region, such as Northerners or Midwesterners.

Rule #5: Do not capitalize the names of the seasons like winter, spring, summer, or fall unless they are personified in creative works. However, names of the seasons are often capitalized in promotional catalogs. Examples: Summer '06 or Winter 2007.

The current trend is to use capital letters sparingly so that proper distinction is given when it's really warranted. When in doubt about whether to capitalize a word, always consult a current dictionary!

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1. Sabin, William A. The Gregg Reference Manual. Tenth Edition.
         New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2005, pp. 92-119.