A capital offence

To capitalise or not to capitalise?  That is the question. 

In the sixteenth century, grammarians decided that capital letters should be used not only at the beginning of every sentence and for proper nouns and names (as done since Roman times), but also for other ‘important’ common nouns. 

By the late 1600s, some writers were capitalising all nouns, a practice that continued through the following century.  Since then, grammarians have rejected the over-capitalisation of nouns – reserving capitals for the beginning of sentences and for proper nouns and names only.

In English, we only capitalise proper nouns (within sentences).  Germans, on the other hand, capitalise all nouns (proper and common) – for example, Essen is both the city in Rhine-Westphalia and the common word for ‘food’.

If you find yourself wondering whether to use upper or lower case on a common noun, ask yourself the question: “am I German?”  If the answer is no, then a lower case applies.

In English, we do not use capitals letters very much.  Capital letters should be used:

  • At the start of sentences, or to begin speech
  • For the personal pronoun (‘I’)
  • For acronyms, and
  • For proper nouns (names of people, places, organisations), such as:
    • names and titles of people (Karl Marx, Dr Livingstone)
    • days of the week, months of the year, holidays (Christmas, Easter)
    • trade-marks and names of companies and other organisations (Coca Cola, Microsoft Corporation)
    • places and monuments (London, Buckingham Palace)
    • names of vehicles like ships, trains and spacecraft (the Titanic, the Orient Express) and
    • titles of books, poems, songs, plays, films (War and Peace, The Lion King).

A final comment:  “I am the Roman Emperor, and am above grammar,” said Emperor Sigismund.  For everyone else, grammar rules!

One thought on “A capital offence

  1. A perennial problem. Worse, it is often accompanied by random capitalisation, with Proper Noun, Proper noun and Propernoun mixed into the one document. Naming a thing shouldn’t be so hard!

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