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Rules of Capitalization in Academic Writing

May 31, 2022| Category: Writing Tips

If to scrutinize literacy on a global scale, we can assert that people have become more educated during the last decades. Isn’t it strange to realize that literacy might be even uncommon nowadays?

There is a paradox of the modern times – our information-packed world negatively affects general grammar proficiency as the context is regarded more important than its decent presentation. One of the evident deliberately acceptable grammar-related flaws is breaking the rules of capitalization. Is it some kind of a post-ironic rebellion or sugar-coated idleness? Protest or indifference towards the overall fluency of the language? That is the question.

For instance, a justifiable wrong capitalization can be caused by dreadful unexpected circumstances like the ongoing war of Russia against Ukraine, which has shattered the whole world. Considering all the atrocities taking place in their country right now, Ukrainians express the attitude to the hostile state by spelling the name “russia” using only lower-case letters. This deliberate anti-capitalization can be often seen even in the official news, and some global media have adopted this approach as well. On the contrary, there are numerous posts of predominantly young people, who even spell “I” as “i” because they seem not to care much. Is it an influence of having iPhones or something else? This new-fangled diminution of conventional grammar rules has yet to be explored.

The truth is that even revered academics and renowned authors tend to make mistakes, and no one should be humiliated for the sudden errors. Yet, if you know traditional rules, then you will also know how to break them in a smart way. So, let’s focus on the proper capitalization of the English language. It can be compared to a writing etiquette, which will help you produce high-quality content.

How to Discern Proper Nouns and Common Nouns

Most people, despite their level of education, would instantly recognize certain proper nouns and capitalize them properly. Probably, you would be even offended if someone wrote your name and surname using only lower-case letters. In contrast, you would perceive it perfectly normal if someone wrote your nickname only in lowercase. The capitalization rule is applied not only to names but also places (continents, countries, regions, cities, towns and other geographical locations), monuments, streets, organizations, books, movies, events, etc. Adjectives that come from these proper nouns are also capitalized: England – English, Shakespeare –Shakespearean, Mars – Martian, Gautama Buddha – Buddhist.

  • “Dandelion Wine” by an American author Ray Bradbury is Jane’s favorite book. Do you know that Bradbury attended Los Angeles High School?

Alternatively, common nouns refer to universal entities, which are usually non-specific. Therefore, you would not capitalize most of the common nouns unless you start a sentence with a capital letter. Besides, common nouns transform into proper ones in titles of any work.

  • Teachers, students, and their parents organized a marvelous spring picnic in Central Park.

There is a compound proper noun Central Park in the example above. The rest of the nouns – teachers, students, parents, spring picnic are proper ones.

Keep in mind: common nous can transit into proper nouns when a certain place obtains a widely known name:

  • A huge canyon à The Grand Canyon
  • A local church à The Catholic Church

Creative exceptions: Emily Dickinson broke conventional rules of capitalization as she deliberately capitalized randomly chosen common nouns:

“I measure every Grief I meet

With narrow, probing, eyes –

I wonder if It weighs like Mine –

Or has an Easier size.”

How to Capitalize Times, Events, Days, and Months

Definite periods and recognized events in history belong to proper nouns, so typically, time and event noun, simple and compound one, has to start with an uppercase letter. The vivid exception is writing centuries only in lowercase.

  • People from the Middle Ages would not have adapted to the whims of the Digital Age.
  • Shakespeare belongs to both Renaissance and Reformation cultural movements.
  • Expressionism focused on the emotionally subjective embodiment of the outer and inner worlds.
  • The Russian-Ukrainian War has caused the major global crisis of the twenty-first century.

Other commonly capitalized words include days of the week (Friday, Saturday), months (May, September), as well as national and religious holidays (ChristmasIndependence Day). In contrast, we do not usually capitalize the four seasons unless they form a compound proper noun.

  • I am going to start an experimental course in autumn.
  • Your new assignment is to discuss the 2014 Winter Olympics.
  • Why would everyone hate Mondays?
  • My birthday is in August.
How to Capitalize Regions and Directions

We usually do not capitalize the four cardinal directions – north, east, south, and west when mentioning them generally. This rule also related to their derivative adverbs and adjectives.

  • I have been staying in a small fishing village on the south coast for 8 months.
  • The worst thing about living in beautiful Norway is unbearably cold northern winds.
  • The rockets are flying over the eastern part of the country more often, but the western part is not safe either.

In contrast, you have to capitalize the directions when they specify a distinct region or when they comprise an integral part of a proper name.

  • Why are we always ardently focused on the history of Western civilization? Can we start delving into Eastern cultures more profoundly?
  • What is the difference between the True North Pole and the Magnetic North Pole?
  • The East of Scotland has one of the most impressive landscapes I have ever seen.

Yet, the capitalization of certain geographical locations in relation to their directions can vary.

  • We like going on a long vacation throughout the West Coast of the United States.
  • The waters of the Atlantic Ocean surround the west coast of Ireland.

There are no exceptions to the languages, nationalities, countries, and cities, so it is easy to remember that all these words have to be capitalized.

  • My uncle is Spanish, and my aunt is Austrian.
  • The ancient Latin influenced an abundance of languages, including English, French, and Italian.
  • Catalonians want Barcelona to become a capital of Spain.
How to Capitalize Disciplines, Models, and Theories

Specific academic terms should not be capitalized and students often break this rule. Yet, proper nouns, which emerge within these terms, have to adhere to general capitalization rules:

  • Five-factor model of personality;
  • Newton’s theory of gravity;
  • Psychophysiology, physics, mathematics, economics, sociology;
  • Platonic idealism.

If you write the names of questionnaires, tests, and inventories, then you have to capitalize these words.

  • UWIST Mood Adjective Checklist;
  • Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.
How to Capitalize Quotations

If you need to quote a full sentence, then you have to capitalize the first word after the quotation mark.

  • The heroine muttered, “Why cannot they leave me alone in my room?”
  • John Smith exclaimed, “This project can take months! Who can help me with this task?”

On the contrary, if you need to write a partial quote, then capitalization is not needed.

  • Marieke told me she “had never made this dish before”, but I truly liked the taste!
  • His professor emphasized “the necessity to look for the latest references instead of the outdated bibliography.”
Capitalizing after Colons

When you need to put a colon in a sentence to introduce a kind of list or a separate phrase, then you should not capitalize the words if they are not proper nouns.

  • Mary made an exceptional dinner today: lasagna, roast chicken, cheesecake, and wine.

Sometimes, a complete sentence may follow after a colon. In academic writing, this rule might vary depending on the necessary formatting style. In APA, for instance, you should capitalize the first word after the colon.

  • My teacher was preparing her lessons meticulously: She strived to help me succeed in my studies.

Chicago style makes this rule trickier. It predetermines the capitalization after the colon only when it entails an extended elucidation.

  • My teacher was preparing her lessons meticulously: she strived to help me succeed in my studies.
  • My teacher was preparing her lessons meticulously: She strived to help me succeed in my studies. She knew that if I improved my rating, I would have a chance to apply for Harvard scholarship.
Capitalization of Book and Movie Titles

Although it may belong to the rules of proper nouns capitalization, there are also certain discrepancies you must know about. In titles and headings, you have to capitalize first words, nouns, adjectives, verbs, but not prepositions, conjunctions, and articles.

  • Can we even compare The Lord of the Ringsto The Witcher?
  • The Catcher in the Rye by D. Salinger has been my favorite book since childhood.
Capitalization of Headings in Academic Papers

Similar rules are applied to capitalization of headings and subheadings in academic projects.

  • The Analysis of Conceptual Arts of the 20th Century

There are unique capitalization requirements, which have to be checked accordingly whenever you are assigned a specific paper format. You can review how to format APA headings and subheadings. It is essential to adhere to the same capitalization style to make your paper look flawless.

Capitalization guidelines can be flexible, especially in creative writing. Yet, academic or formal writing has to reflect unambiguous rules.

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