Capital Letters and Abbreviations
Capital letters are not really an aspect of punctuation, but it is c onvenient to deal with them here. The rules for using them are mostly very simple.
(a) The first word of a sentence, or of a fragment, begins with a capital letter:
The bumbling wizard Rincewind is Pratchett's most popular character.
Will anyone now alive live to see a colony on the moon? Probably not.
Distressingly few pupils can locate Iraq or Japan on a map of the world.
(b) The names of the days of the week, and of the months of the year, are written with a capital letter:
Next Sunday France will hold a general election.
Mozart was born on 27 January, 1756.
Football practice takes place on Wednesdays and Fridays.
However, the names of seasons are not written with a capital:
Like cricket, baseball is played in the summer.
Do not write *"... in the Summer".
(c) The names of languages are always written with a capital letter. Be careful about this; it's a very common mistake.
Juliet speaks English, French, Italian and Portuguese.
I need to work on my Spanish irregular verbs.
Among the major languages of India are Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil.
These days, few students study Latin and Greek.
Note, however, that names of disciplines and school subjects are not capitalized unless they happen to be the names of languages:
I'm doing A-levels in history, geography and English.
Newton made important contributions to physics and mathematics.
She is studying French literature.
(d) Words that express a connection with a particular place must be capitalized when they have their literal meanings. So, for example, French must be capitalized when it means `having to do with France':
The result of the French election is still in doubt.
The American and Russian negotiators are close to agreement.
There are no mountains in the Dutch landscape.
She has a dry Mancunian sense of humour.
(The word Mancunian means `from Manchester'.)
However, it is not necessary to capitalize these words when they occur as parts of fixed phrases and don't express any direct connection with the relevant places:
Please buy some danish pastries.
In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
I prefer russian dressing on my salad.
Why the difference? Well, a danish pastry is merely a particular sort of pastry; it doesn't have to come from Denmark. Likewise, french windows are merely a particular kind of window, and russian dressing is just a particular variety of salad dressing. Even in these cases, you can capitalize these words if you want to, as long as you are consistent about it. But notice how convenient it can be to make the difference:
In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
After nightfall, French windows are always shuttered.
In the first example, french windows just refers to a kind of window; in the second, French windows refers specifically to windows in France.
(e) In the same vein, words that identify nationalities or ethnic groups must be capitalized:
The Basques and the Catalans spent decades struggling for autonomy.
The Serbs and the Croats have become bitter enemies.
Norway's most popular singer is a Sami from Lapland.
(An aside: some ethnic labels which were formerly widely used are now regarded by many people as offensive and have been replaced by other labels. Thus, careful writers use Black, not Negro; native American, not Indian or red Indian; native Australian, not Aborigine. You are advised to follow suit.)
(f) Formerly, the words black and white, when applied to human beings, were never capitalized. Nowadays, however, many people prefer to capitalize them because they regard these words as ethnic labels comparable to Chinese or Indian:
The Rodney King case infuriated many Black Americans.
You may capitalize these words or not, as you prefer, but be consistent.
(g) Proper names are always capitalized. A proper name is a name or a title that refers to an individual person, an individual place, an individual institution or an individual event. Here are some examples:
The study of language was revolutionized by Noam Chomsky.
The Golden Gate Bridge towers above San Francisco Bay.
There will be a debate between Professor Lacey and Doctor Davis.
The Queen will address the House of Commons today.
Many people mistakenly believe that Mexico is in South America.
My friend Julie is training for the Winter Olympics.
Next week President Clinton will be meeting Chancellor Kohl.
Observe the difference between the next two examples:
We have asked for a meeting with the President.
I would like to be the president of a big company.
In the first, the title the President is capitalized because it is a title referring to a specific person; in the second, there is no capital, because the word president does not refer to anyone in particular. (Compare We have asked for a meeting with President Wilson and *I would like to be President Wilson of a big company.) The same difference is made with some other words: we write the Government and Parliament when we are referring to a particular government or a particular parliament, but we write government and parliament when we are using the words generically. And note also the following example:
The patron saint of carpenters is Saint Joseph.
Here Saint Joseph is a name, but patron saint is not and gets no capital.
There is a slight problem with the names of hazily defined geographical regions. We usually write the Middle East and Southeast Asia, because these regions are now regarded as having a distinctive identity, but we write central Europe and southeast London, because these regions are not thought of as having the same kind of identity. Note, too, the difference between South Africa (the name of a particular country) and southern Africa (a vaguely defined region). All I can suggest here is that you read a good newspaper and keep your eyes open.
Observe that certain surnames of foreign origin contain little words that are often not capitalized, such as de, du, da, von and van. Thus we write Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, General von Moltke and Simone de Beauvoir. On the other hand, we write Daphne Du Maurier and Dick Van Dyke, because those are the forms preferred by the owners of the names. When in doubt, check the spelling in a good reference book.
A few people eccentrically prefer to write their names with no capital letters at all, such as the poet e. e. cummings and the singer k. d. lang. These strange usages should be respected.
(h) The names of distinctive historical periods are capitalized:
London was a prosperous city during the Middle Ages.
Britain was the first country to profit from the Industrial Revolution.
The Greeks were already in Greece during the Bronze Age.
(i) The names of festivals and holy days are capitalized:
We have long breaks at Christmas and Easter.
During Ramadan, one may not eat before sundown.
The feast of Purim is an occasion for merrymaking.
Our church observes the Sabbath very strictly.
The children greatly enjoy Hallowe'en.
(j) Many religious terms are capitalized, including the names of religions and of their followers, the names or titles of divine beings, the titles of certain important figures, the names of important events and the names of sacred books:
An atheist is a person who does not believe in God.
The principal religions of Japan are Shinto and Buddhism.
The Indian cricket team includes Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Parsees.
The Lord is my shepherd.
The Prophet was born in Mecca.
The Last Supper took place on the night before the Crucifixion.
The Old Testament begins with Genesis.
Note, however, that the word god is not capitalized when it refers to a pagan deity:
Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea.
(k) In the title or name of a book, a play, a poem, a film, a magazine, a newspaper or a piece of music, a capital letter is used for the first word and for every significant word (that is, a little word like the, of, and or in is not capitalized unless it is the first word):
I was terrified by The Silence of the Lambs.
The Round Tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The Shoop Shoop Song.
Important note: The policy just described is the one most widely used in the English-speaking world. There is, however, a second policy, preferred by many people. In this second policy, we capitalize only the first word of a title and any words which intrinsically require capitals for independent reasons. Using the second policy, my examples would look like this:
I was terrified by The silence of the lambs.
The round tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and fugue in D minor.
I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The shoop shoop song.
You may use whichever policy you prefer, so long as you are consistent about it. You may find, however, that your tutor or your editor insists upon one or the other. The second policy is particularly common (though not universal) in academic circles, and is usual among librarians; elsewhere, the first policy is almost always preferred.
(l) The first word of a direct quotation, repeating someone else's exact words, is always capitalized if the quotation is a complete sentence:
Thomas Edison famously observed "Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."
But there is no capital letter if the quotation is not a complete sentence:
The Minister described the latest unemployment figures as "disappointing".
(m) The brand names of manufacturers and their products are capitalized:
Maxine has bought a second-hand Ford Escort.
Almost everybody owns a Sony Walkman.
Note: There is a problem with brand names which have become so successful that they are used in ordinary speech as generic labels for classes of products. The manufacturers of Kleenex and Sellotape are exasperated to find people using kleenex and sellotape as ordinary words for facial tissues or sticky tape of any kind, and some such manufacturers may actually take legal action against this practice. If you are writing for publication, you need to be careful about this, and it is best to capitalize such words if you use them. However, when brand names are converted into verbs, no capital letter is used: we write She was hoovering the carpet and I need to xerox this report, even though the manufacturers of Hoover vacuum cleaners and Xerox photocopiers don 't much like this practice, either.
(n) Roman numerals are usually capitalized:
It is no easy task to multiply LIX by XXIV using Roman numerals.
King Alfonso XIII handed over power to General Primo de Rivera.
The only common exception is that small Roman numerals are used to number the pages of the front matter in books; look at almost any book.
(o) The pronoun I is always capitalized:
She thought I'd borrowed her keys, but I hadn't.
It is possible to write an entire word or phrase in capital letters in order to emphasize it:
There is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE to support this conjecture.
On the whole, though, it is preferable to express emphasis, not with capital letters, but with italics. It is not necessary to capitalize a word merely because there is only one thing it can possibly refer to:
The equator runs through the middle of Brazil.
Admiral Peary was the first person to fly over the north pole.
The universe is thought to be about 15 billion years old.
Here the words equator, north pole and universe need no capitals, because they aren't strictly proper names. Some people choose to capitalize them anyway; this is not wrong, but it's not recommended.
Capital letters are also used in writing certain abbreviations and related types of words, including the abbreviated names of organizations and companies, and in letter writing and in the headings of essays.
There is one other rather rare use of capital letters which is worth explaining if only to prevent you from doing it by mistake when you don't mean to. This to poke fun at something. Here is an example:
The French Revolution was a Good Thing at first, but Napoleon's rise to power was a Bad Thing.
Here the writer is making fun of the common tendency to see historical events in simple-minded terms as either good or bad. Another example:
Many people claim that rock music is Serious Art, deserving of Serious Critical Attention.
The writer is clearly being sarcastic: all those unusual capital letters demonstrate that he considers rock music to be worthless trash.
This stylistic device is only appropriate in writing which is intended to be humorous, or at least light-hearted; it is quite out of place in formal writing.
The use of unnecessary capital letters when you're trying to be serious can quickly make your prose look idiotic, rather like those content-free books that fill the shelves of the "New Age" section in bookshops:
Your Eidetic Soul is linked by its Crystal Cord to the Seventh Circle of the Astral Plane, from where the Immanent Essence is transmitted to your Eidetic Aura,...
You get the idea. Don't use a capital letter unless you're sure you know why it's there.
Summary of Capital Letters:
the first word of a sentence or fragment
the name of a day or a month
the name of a language
a word expressing a connection with a place
the name of a nationality or an ethnic group
a proper name
the name of a historical period
the name of a holiday
a significant religious term
the first word, and each significant word, of a title
the first word of a direct quotation which is a sentence
a brand name
a Roman numeral
the pronoun I
An abbreviation is a short way of writing a word or a phrase that could a lso be written out in full. So, for example, you might write Dr Kinsey inste ad of Doctor Kinsey. Here Dr is an abbreviation for the word Doctor. Likewise, the phrase for example can sometimes be abbreviated to e.g.
Abbreviations must be clearly distinguished from contractions. The key difference is that an abbreviation does not normally have a distinctive pronunciation of its own. So, for example, the abbreviation Dr is pronounced just like Doctor, the abbreviation oz is pronounced just like ounce(s) and the abbreviation e.g. is pronounced just like for example. (True, there are a few people who actually say "ee-jee" for the last one, but this practice is decidedly unusual.) A contraction, in contrast, does have its own distinctive pronunciation: for example, the contraction can't is pronounced differently from cannot, and the contraction she's is pronounced differently from she is or she has.
Abbreviations are very rarely used in formal writing. Almost the only ones which are frequently used are the abbreviations for certain common titles, when these are used with someone's name: Mr Willis, Dr Livingstone, Mrs Thatcher, Ms Harmon, St Joan. (Note that the two items Mrs and Ms are conventionally treated as abbreviations, even though they can be written in no other way.) When writing about a French or Spanish person, you may use the abbreviations for the French and Spanish equivalents of the English titles: M. Mitterrand, Sr. González. (These are the usual French and Spanish abbreviations for Monsieur and Señor, equivalent to English Mister.) Observe that each of these abbreviations begins with a capital letter.
Other titles are sometimes abbreviated in the same way: Prof. Chomsky, Sgt. Yorke, Mgr. Lindemann. However, it is usually much better to write these titles out in full when you are using them in a sentence: Professor Chomsky, Sergeant Yorke, Monsignor Lindemann. The abbreviated forms are best confined to places like footnotes and captions of pictures.
Note carefully the use of full stops in these abbreviations. British usage favours omitting the full stop in abbreviations which include the first and last letters of a single word, such as Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr and St; American usage prefers (A) Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr. and St., with full stops. Most other abbreviated titles, however, require a full stop, as shown above.
A person's initials are a kind of abbreviation, and these are usually followed by full stops: John D. Rockefeller, C. Aubrey Smith, O. J. Simpson. Increasingly, however, there is a tendency to write such initials without full stops: John D Rockefeller, C Aubrey Smith, O J Simpson. And note the rare special case illustrated by Harry S Truman: the S in this name never takes a full stop, because it's not an abbreviation for anything; President Truman's parents actually gave him the middle name S.
Two other common abbreviations are a.m. (`before noon') and p.m. (`after noon'): 10.00 a.m., six p.m. These are always acceptable. Note that these are not capitalized in British usage (though American usage prefers (A) 10.00 am and six pm, with small capitals and no full stops).
Also usual are the abbreviations b.c. and a.d., usually written in small capitals, for marking dates as before or after the birth of Christ:
According to tradition, Rome was founded in 753 b.c.
The emperor Vespasian died in a.d. 79. or
The emperor Vespasian died in 79 a.d.
It is traditional, and recommended, to write a.d. before the date, but nowadays it is often written after.
Non-Christians who do not use the Christian calendar may prefer to use b.c.e. (`before the common era') and c.e. (`of the common era') instead. This is always acceptable:
According to tradition, Rome was founded in 753 b.c.e.
The emperor Vespasian died in 79 c.e.
All four of these abbreviations are commonly written in small capitals, and you should follow this practice if you can; if you can't produce small capitals, use full-sized capitals instead. All four of them are also now very frequently written without full stops: 753 bc, ad 79, 753 bce, 79 ce. This reflects the increasing tendency to omit the full stops in abbreviations, and I myself prefer to write 753 bc, and so on.
Note also that, when an abbreviation comes at the end of a sentence, only one full stop is written. You should never write two full stops in a row.
Many large and well-known organizations and companies have very long names which are commonly abbreviated to a set of initials written in capital letters, usually with no full stops. Here are a few familiar examples:
British Broadcasting Corporation
Imperial Chemical Industries
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Trades Union Congress
These and some others are so famous that you can safely use the abbreviated forms without explanation. But don't overdo it ‹ not every reader will recognize IRO as the International Refugee Organization, or IOOF as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (an American social and charitable organization). And, if you're writing for a non-British readership, you'd better not use the abbreviated forms of specifically British institutions, such as the TUC, without explaining them. If you are in doubt, explain the abbreviation the first time you use it. (Note that a few of these were formerly written with full stops, such as R.S.P.C.A., but this tiresome and unnecessary practice is now obsolete.)
A few other abbreviations are so well known that you can use them safely in your writing. Every reader will understand what you mean by GCSE examinations (GCSE = General Certificate of Secondary Education), or by DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), or by IQ (intelligence quotient), or by FM radio (FM = frequency modulation). Indeed, in some of these cases, the abbreviated form of the name is far more familiar than the full name.
Otherwise, however, you should try to avoid the use of abbreviations in your formal writing. The frequent use of unnecessary abbreviations will make your text irritating and hard to read. So, you should write four ounces (not 4 oz.), 80 miles per hour (not 80 mph), the Church of England (not the C of E), the seventeenth century (not C17 or the 17th cent.) and the second volume (not the 2nd vol.) It is far more important to make your writing easy to read than to save a few seconds in writing it.
There is one exception to this policy. In scientific writing, the names of units are always abbreviated and always written without full stops or a plural s. If you are doing scientific writing, then, you should conform by writing 5 kg (not 5 kilogrammes, and certainly not *5 kg. or *5 kgs.), 800 Hz (not 800 Hertz) and 17.3 cm3 (not 17.3 cubic centimetres).
There are a number of Latin abbreviations which are sometimes used in English texts. Here are the commonest ones with their English equivalents:
e.g. for example
i.e. in other words
etc. and so forth
sc. which means
et al. and other people
The rule about using these Latin abbreviations is very simple: don't use them. Their use is only appropriate in special circumstances in which brevity is at a premium, such as in footnotes. It is very poor style to spatter your page with these things, and it could be disastrous to use them without being quite sure what they mean. If you do use one, make sure you punctuate it correctly. Here is an example. The recommended form is this:
Several British universities were founded in the Victorian era; for example, the University of Manchester was established in 1851.
The following version is not wrong, but it is poor style:
Several British universities were founded in the Victorian era; e.g., the University of Manchester was established in 1851.
But this next version is disastrously wrong, because the punctuation has been omitted:
*Several British universities were founded in the Victorian era e.g. the University of Manchester was established in 1851.
Using a Latin abbreviation does not relieve you of the obligation of punctuating your sentence. Again, if you avoid Latin abbreviations, you won't get into this sort of trouble.
The abbreviation ca. `approximately' is properly used only in citing a date which is not known exactly, and then usually only if the date is given in parentheses:
The famous Basque cemetery of Argiñeta in Elorrio (ca. ad 883) shows tombs with sun-discs but no crosses.
Roger Bacon (ca. 12141294) was known as "the Admirable Doctor".
Here the use of ca. shows that the date of the cemetery and the date of Bacon's birth are not known exactly. If neither birth date nor death date is known for sure, then each is preceded by ca.
Outside of parentheses, you should usually avoid the use of ca. and prefer an English word like about or approximately:
The city of Bilbao was founded in about 1210.
Do not write "...in ca. 1210".
The abbreviation etc. calls for special comment. It should never be used in careful writing: it is vague and sloppy and, when applied to people, rather offensive. Do not write something like this:
*Central Africa was explored by Livingstone, Stanley, Brazza, etc. Instead, rewrite the sentence in a more explicit way:
Central Africa was explored by Livingstone, Stanley and Brazza, among others. or
Central Africa was explored by several Europeans, including Livingstone, Stanley and Brazza.
If you do find yourself using etc., for heaven's sake spell it and punctuate it correctly. This is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase et cetera `and other things', and it is pronounced ET SETRA, and not *EK SETRA. Do not write ghastly things like *ect. or *e.t.c. Such monstrosities make your writing look hopelessly illiterate. Again, if you avoid Latin abbreviations, you won't fall into such traps.
Finally, there are two further (and highly objectionable) Latin abbreviations ibid. and op. cit.
Observe that it is usual to write Latin abbreviations in italics, but this is not strictly essential, and many people don't bother.
There has recently been a fashion in some circles for writing Latin abbreviations without full stops, and you may come across things like ie and eg in your reading. I consider this a ghastly practice, and I urge you strongly not to imitate it. (Note, however, that et al. has only one full stop, since et `and' is a complete word in Latin.)
One final point: very many people who should know better use the Latin abbreviation cf., which properly means `compare', merely to refer to published work. It is now very common to see something like this:
*The Australian language Dyirbal has a remarkable gender system; cf. Dixon (1972).
This is quite wrong, since the writer is not inviting the reader to compare Dixon's work with anything, but only to consult that work for more information. Hence the correct form is this:
The Australian language Dyirbal has a remarkable gender system; see Dixon (1972).
This widespread blunder is a signal reminder of the danger of using Latin abbreviations when you don't know what they mean. Far too many writers fall into this trap, and write i.e. when they mean e.g., or something equally awful. If you must use a Latin abbreviation, make sure you're using the right one. In most circumstances, though, you are best advised to avoid these abbreviations: almost every one of them has a simple English equivalent which should usually be preferred.
Summary of abbreviations:
Do not use an abbreviation that can easily be avoided.
In an abbreviation, use full stops and capital letters in the conventional way. Do not forget to punctuate the rest of the sentence normally.