When to use capital letters
If it feels like a lifetime since you sat in an English Language class, you’re not alone. Most people have long forgotten the rules that govern when a capital letter should be used, and we’ve spotted errors everywhere - on websites and billboards, in emails and brochures, with big brands often as guilty as anyone else.
While some of your customers and clients may not mind - or indeed notice - the occasional Errant Capital (see what we did there?), many will actually think less of your brand because of it. And a few will be downright irritated by any mistakes.
So, to ensure you present a professional and error-free front, here are some of the key times when it is acceptable to use a capital letter:
At the start of a sentence
The first word in a sentence begins with a capital letter. Always. No arguments, ok?
This applies equally to a sentence of speech that occurs within another sentence, as with the word “we” in this example:
Addressing his team, the manager said, “We need ideas for this year’s summer social.”
When using a proper noun
A proper noun is basically a name, whether it’s used for a person, place or organisation. Proper nouns get capitals, so you’d write Tom, or France, or Debenhams.
Other examples are named landmarks such as Big Ben, months and days of the week (February and Wednesday), and other significant days and religious holidays (Christmas, Independence Day).
When referring to someone’s title
Mr and Mrs Brown are deserving of capitals, as are Reverend Smith, Queen Elizabeth and Captain Davies. You can also use a capital if you’re referring to your company’s Marketing Director, although when talking about marketing directors in general you should keep things lowercase. Likewise you’d talk about doctors with a lowercase ‘d’ but refer to Dr. Jones with a capital.
Within non-personal titles
It’s not just people and things who have titles. You might take a writing class but if you’re advertising a workshop called Short Film Script Writing, then it’s ok to capitalise each of the words.
Sometimes titles mix capitalised and non-capitalised words depending on importance. For example, you might have a book called The Best Films of the 21st Century. This is a debatable point, as some people prefer to capitalise all the words, while others stick to sentence case (i.e. capitalising the first word but not the rest).
Abbreviations and acronyms
This includes names like the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), concepts such as GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), and phrases like BOGOF (“buy one, get one free”). Full stops are not needed after the letters, unless an organisation specifically decides to use them as a style feature.
Odds and ends
There are a few areas where it gets a bit tricky, such as:
- Government: When referring to “the Government” you need a capital, but talking about “local governments departments”, for example, you don’t.
- Compass points: These need capitals when used as parts of specific designated areas (South London) but not when used to talk about general areas (the west side of Birmingham).
- Organisational titles: While you would capitalise Bristol City Council, you would stick to lowercase when saying that “the council has made same changes” Likewise Gloucestershire Housing Association and “the association decided…”.
There are, of course, some exceptions, not to mention grey areas. In particular, where you’re using words as design elements - on a flyer, for example - you might deliberately choose to use all capitals or all lowercase or a random mix that looks pretty even if it isn’t strictly correct.
The important thing is to know what the rules are so that when you break them, it’s a deliberate move and not a blunder. And if in doubt, ask a professional!
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