Capitalization Rules: What Are the Rules Capitalizing Words? (Examples)

By Carly Forsaith, updated on May 25, 2023

Knowing when to capitalize words is a valuable skill in English grammar. In this article, you'll learn all the capitalization rules you need to know to get it right every time.

In short:

  • You should capitalize the first word of a sentence, proper nouns, the pronoun 'I,' and most words in titles.
  • But of course, there are exceptions and special cases that you should know about. And that's what we'll cover today.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Does 'Capitalization' Mean?

First of all, what does it mean to capitalize something?

The verb has several meanings, but for the purposes of this article, the relevant definition is:

  • To write a letter of the alphabet as a capital, or to write the first letter of a word as a capital
    (source: Cambridge Dictionary)

In English, like in many languages, all letters have two forms—capital and non-capital, also known as uppercase and lowercase.

You can say that you 'capitalize a letter' or you can say that you 'capitalize a word.' Both mean the same thing: to use a capital letter for the first letter of that word.

Some letters should be capitalized depending on the kind of word they begin or the sentence they find themselves in. And there are capitalization rules you can learn to know exactly when you should and shouldn't capitalize a letter.

And that's what we'll learn today. So let's dive in.

What Are the Capitalization Rules?

There are seven instances when you should use a capital letter at the beginning of a word, and those are:

  1. The first word of the sentence
  2. Proper nouns
  3. The pronoun 'I.'
  4. The first word after a colon (sometimes)
  5. The first word of a quote (sometimes)
  6. Most words in titles
  7. Titles and honorifics

Let's go over each of these one by one.

1. The First Word of a Sentence

This is the most straightforward of all the rules: the first word of a sentence should always begin with a capital letter, regardless of the kind of word it is or the sentence type.

Here are some examples:

Always capitalize the first word in a sentence.

Should you capitalize the first word of a question?

Of course you should!

As you can see from the above sentences, this rule applies regardless of the type of sentence: imperative, interrogative, exclamatory... you name it.

2. Proper Nouns

This one's a bit more complex. Not the rule, mind you; that's pretty straightforward. It goes like this: always capitalize proper nouns. The tricky bit is knowing what constitutes a proper noun.

  • In general, a proper noun names something. That might be a person, a location, a language, a brand, an event, a period... the list goes on.

But not all words that fit into the categories I just named are regarded as proper nouns.

For example:

  • You capitalize days, months, and holidays but not seasons.
  • Capitalize geographical locations like countries and towns, but only sometimes cardinals.

Your best bet is to familiarize yourself with what constitutes a proper noun and remember that you should always capitalize them.

Here are some examples of sentences that contain a proper noun:

I'm heading to New York for the weekend.

Her dog's name is Rufus.

His favorite holiday is Christmas.

3. The Pronoun 'I'

Always capitalize the word 'I' when used as a personal pronoun. Why? Some theories say that it helps the word stand out on the page. Otherwise, an 'i' standing alone might be difficult to spot. The only other single-letter word in the English language - 'a' - takes up a bit more space, so it doesn't need any help to be more visual.

And by the way, no other language does this. Just English! However strange it may seem, it's just a rule we must follow.

Here are some examples:

I haven't decided where I am going on vacation this year.

Do you know what I want most in the world?

It's not often I get some time to myself.

4. The First Word After a Colon

Sometimes, you must capitalize the first word of a sentence after a colon.

  • But only if it's a complete sentence. If it's a phrase (which is an incomplete sentence), don't capitalize the first word.

Here are some examples of cases where the first word is capitalized because it begins a complete sentence:

There's only one thing I desire: Please let's all go have lunch together.

The dog wasn't expecting what happened next: The cat leaped at her angrily.

I'm not surprised the food at the wedding was amazing: They hired a world-renowned chef.

And here are some examples where the first word is not capitalized because it doesn't start a complete sentence:

That Christmas my parents got me what I'd always wanted: a puppy.

They revealed the gender last night: a boy.

We found the ideal location for our honeymoon: Greece.

5. The First Word of a Quote

Similarly to the previous case, there are times when you'll be required to capitalize the first word of a quote.

  • But only when the quote is a complete sentence.
  • You'll need to open the quote with quotation marks and then begin your sentence with a capital letter.

Here are some examples:

Mother Teresa said: "If you judge people, you have no time to love them."

She asked: "Where do you live?"

I told the officer: "My driver's licence was stolen earlier today."

And I'll also show you some cases where the quote doesn't begin with a capital letter so that you can see the difference:

They assured us the neighbourhood was "quaint and charming."

I told her I knew we would be "friends until the end."

Lady Gaga said meditation "helps [her] to calm down."

6. Most Words in Titles

When writing out titles of works, it's common practice to use title case, which means you capitalize most words in the title. You might have noticed I've done it in this article.

Here are some examples of things you might want to write titles of:

  • movies
  • essays
  • poems
  • books
  • TV shows
  • episodes
  • podcasts
  • speeches

But this can be tricky to do since the rules on which words to capitalize and which ones not to vary depending on the style guide.

For instance, in this section's title, I didn't capitalize the word 'in.' That was voluntary.

Here are some guidelines on the different style guides' rules. If you write for yourself, you get to decide how to do it. Just remember to stay consistent with whichever rules you choose to follow.

Here are some examples:

I just watched The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for the first time.

Have you read The Color Purple? 

My favorite song from her album is Running Up That Hill

7. Titles and Honorifics

Titles are respectful ways of addressing people. You should only capitalize them if they are followed by the person's name. The rest of the time, they stay lowercase.

For example:

Excuse me sir, do you know what time it is?

I sat right behind Sir Elton John at the awards ceremony.

We all know that General Davis was a revered man.

You will report to the general.

And when they replace the person's name, they are almost always capitalized:

  • Your Highness
  • Your Holiness
  • Your Honor
  • Your Grace
  • Your Lordship

Concluding Thoughts on Capitalization Rules

That concludes this article about capitalization rules in English. I hope you found it helpful.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Letters can either be capitalized (uppercase) or non-capitalized (lowercase)
  • Capitalize the first word of the sentence, proper nouns, the pronoun, titles and honorifics, and most words in titles. If it's a complete sentence, also capitalize the first word after a colon and the first word of a quote.
  • When the rules are flexible, pick a rule and stick to it.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our free online Grammar Book. It's a database full of grammar articles just like this one. You're going to love it!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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