Why writing capital Letters for the Wrong words makes them (and you) look Stupid

Are you one of the increasing number of people who think that all you need to make a word more important is to give it a capital letter?


Very nice – but don’t overuse!

As my business partner (an ex-Oxford University publisher/editor/author) would say, “why capitalise your status as a Bricklayer? Does that really make it seem more important than bricklayer?”

Capital letters: after apostrophes, the most commonly abused characters in writing

In my relatively new job of reading authors’ draft manuscripts I never fail to wonder at some people’s bizarre misuse of the “Capital Letter.”

Seriously? Where did these people ever learn that sticking a capital letter at the front of a word would make it seem more grand, more important, more worthy of respect?


So what do I mean about writing capital letters wrongly?

Well, I could cite a number of examples – not just amongst the many book manuscripts we’re looking at right now but in blog posts, social media posts, articles, in fact all over the place.

However there is one series of examples that will resonate with many of you no matter where you are or what your political views:

Nancy just said she “just doesn’t understand why?” Very simply, without a Wall it all doesn’t work. Our Country has a chance to greatly reduce Crime, Human Trafficking, Gangs and Drugs. Should have been done for decades. We will not Cave!

Corrected: Nancy just said she “just doesn’t understand why?” Very simply, without a wall it all doesn’t work. Our country has a chance to greatly reduce crime, human trafficking, gangs and drugs. Should have been done for decades. We will not cave!

And in case you thought that was a one-off exposition of goofs – there are thousands more, e.g.

Never seen and Republicans so united on an issue as they are on the Humanitarian Crisis & Security on our Southern Border. If we create a Wall or Barrier which prevents Criminals and Drugs from flowing into our Country, Crime will go down by record numbers!

Corrected: Never seen and Republicans so united on an issue as they are on the humanitarian crisis & security on our southern border. If we create a wall or barrier which prevents criminals and drugs from flowing into our country, crime will go down by record numbers!

For more of the same see the POTUS’s Twitter feed. Its errors in English – especially in the use of capital letters – are astonishing. And they run through almost every tweet he writes. Did he never understand the basics of English grammar? Does he honestly believe that by slapping a capital letter at the front of a word he feels is important will make anyone else feel it’s important?

And does he really believe that by capitalising/izing words he wants his supporters to see as critical, they will do so? Are they all as bad at English grammar as he is?

Anyway, enough of the problem. What about some solutions?

The basic rules about using capitals in your writing are simple

There are minor variations amongst the different style guides and grammar resources, but here are the basic rules. You use capital letters for:

The first word in a sentence (all English)
The first word after a colon if it starts a complete sentence (USA, sometimes)
A proper noun: the name or specific type of a person, place, entity, brand, title etc.
Acronyms (e.g. SCUBA diving) and initials (USA)
“I” when writing as yourself (but not “me” – no-one is sure why!)

What about writing capital letters in headlines and titles?

Once again, there are variations in what today is acceptable when writing titles.

In the USA, a popular solution is offered and promoted by the Capitalization Tool, as follows:

…it is important to note that there are four main title capitalization styles: Chicago style, APA style, MLA style, and AP style. Each of these capitalization styles has slightly different rules for which words are capitalized and each of these styles can be written using title case capitalization or sentence case capitalization. 

If you’re writing (in English) for the Americas, you can take your pick from the styles above. Their handy little tool helps you capitalise (capitalize!) your title according to the rules in all four of the styles mentioned above.

In Britain, capital letters are used if anything less frequently and less lavishly than in North America. 

Here’s a link to the University of Oxford Style Guide, which probably can be taken as gospel for all traditional English writing. If you scroll down to page 5, you’ll see that the only elements in a title that should NOT be capitalised are articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (to, on, for, etc) and prepositions (but, and, or, etc).

Some scholars say that this applies to those three categories as they are “little words.” But what happens if a conjunction (e.g. because, although) or a preposition (e.g. including, considering) is not a little word?

Wherever you look there seems to be a generally accepted rule that whatever the word – conjunction, preposition etc – if it has five or more letters, it gets a capital first letter no matter what. Four letters and fewer, it doesn’t.

What about the fashion for writing a capital letter for every ****ing word in a title or other key sentence?

This is another fashion that has emerged from North America where capitalising/izing is fashionable. What you get is…

This Is Another Fashion That Has Emerged From North America Where Capitalizing Is Trendy.

In earlier writings on here and elsewhere I have likened this silly practice to the old silent movie Hollywood days when music was played in the cinema/movie house and to sing along, you watched a rolling on-screen caption showing the words to the music indicated by a “bouncing ball.”

When reading such capitalisation/ization, this is what it reminds me of:

So what next?

Forgive my frivolity, but if you want to avoid bouncing balls, stick to capital letter rules.

(You too, Mr POTUS, if you want to retain some credibility.)

What are your views on the use – and misuse – of capital letters?

Please share in the comments!