John Larrysson Column: Capitalisation in sentences

In English sentences there are rules for capitalisation. Sometimes there are whole lists of them. Here they are combined and simplified in three short rules.

1. The first letter of a sentence, including quoted sentences, is capitalised.

2. Names are capitalised. This includes the names of people, places, countries, languages, courses, organisations, cities, books and so on.

3. Do not capitalise other words that you think are important! If you want to emphasise part of a sentence, use bold, or italics or underline the words to be emphasised.

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Capitalising all the LETTERS can be done. This style is a font change, similar to using bold and not capitalisation. Don't overuse font changes for emphasis; too much emphasis is rude and the written equivalent of shouting. People do not like being shouted at in print any more than when it is face to face. Using an exclamation point is much better than shouting.

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(There are some special cases for emphasis. For example, in science Latin species names are put in italics and in references book names are also put in italics.)


Places: Formal place names and organisations are capitalised, but not things, directions or descriptions.

Jane lives in Southern District on Hong Kong Island.

Jane lives on the southern side of the island.

I got my degree at Hong Kong University.

I got my university degree.

Country names: The highest quality of pottery is named after the country that invented it. Only the actual country is capitalised.

He bought some china as a gift.

He will go to the People's Republic of China.

Language names: The subjects history and maths are just things to be studied.

This is my English language textbook.

This is my Chinese history textbook.

This is my maths textbook.

Course names: Here mathematics is part of the name of a course.

I got an A in Mathematics 101.

I got an A on my mathematics test.

Titles: They are capitalised when used as part of the person's name or as the whole name.

I heard that Grandmother Wong won the race.

She is my grandmother.

I heard that Corporal Tsang is very friendly.

He is a corporal now.

She is Mrs Leung, our new school principal.

I heard that Principal Leung is new to your school.

Names of days and months : Names of days are capitalised, but days are just things.

Easter Monday is on the second Monday in April.

Easter Monday is on the 9th day of the month.

The: Left, right, west, east and so on are not capitalised, unless they are used as a name.

He is left-handed.

He votes for the Left.

I do not like Western food.

The sun sets in the west.

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There are many special cases and exceptions in English. However if you follow these examples you will be right most of the time. If a word is used as a name or at the beginning of a sentence capitalise it. Exceptions include cultural bias for example a monotheistic God is capitalised and polytheistic gods are not. These rules, like the rest of English, are not rules, but guidelines. When you are unsure use your own judgement.

Next week I'll cover capitalisation in captions and titles.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.