photo a yellow that sign that reads “For your child’s safety Do NOT park on Zig-Zag Lines”; capitalization is very inconsistent.

Source: dukational Sign, Francis Storr, Flickr

You developed some good capitalization habits in elementary school–or grammar school, as it was once known:

You already know a lot about capitalization, but if you’d like a bit of silly fun, you may remember this Electric Company song about when to use “Texas-sized letters.”

Now it’s time to dig a little deeper into the mechanics of our language and expand your knowledge of capitalization. In this lesson, you’ll develop the knowledge base you need for proofreading your written work and the work of your peers.

First, capitalize the first word of an embedded quotation, as in these sentences:

–In his essay, the student wrote, “In 1957, Eugene O’Neill won a Pulitzer Prize.”

–Another student asked a classmate, “How does that work again?”

Second, capitalize words in lists when a clause introduces the list. (A clause contains a subject and a verb.) Whether you use numbers or bullets to set a list apart, use capital letters for each item, as shown in the next example.

Rodeo applicants will be tested on their basic skills in the following areas:

Short words with fewer than four letters like articles (the, a, an), prepositions (of, for, in, with), and conjunctions (and, but) are not capitalized unless they are the first or last word in a title.

Just for Fun

Speaking of titles, let’s consider the rules for capitalizing book titles. Let’s use some classic books with a single letter missing as examples of what words to capitalize in book titles. Use the example below as a model for the two book titles that follow. Drop the first letter of the first noun in each book title and think about how you would capitalize the title. The original titles have been left uncapitalized to provide you with some practice. Check your understanding to see correct responses and a humorous description of the new title.

the pearl by John Steinbeck becomes The Earl and is now a novel about royalty rather than a fisherman. In either case, “The” is capitalized because it is the first word.

A stamp featuring a child's drawing of a quaint fisherman, from Faroe Islands

Source: Faroe stamp 040 childrens year (man in boat), Rasmus Fossa,
Wikimedia Commons

A member of the ruling class in flowing robes

Source: Joachim Murat (Order of Two-Siciles),
by Francois Gerard (1770-1837)

icon for interactive exercise

Check Your Understanding

Lice in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll's story of the vermin epidemic during the time of a shampoo shortage

drawing of the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland running with a cup in one hand and paper in the other. He wears brightly colored pants and a huge top hat.

Source: Mad Hatter, Gerald_G, Open Clip Art Library

Close up of a louse, positioned as if for scientific examination on a slide

Source: Pediculus humanus capitis CDC9217, Dr. Dennis D.
Juranek, Wikimedia

icon for interactive exercise

Check Your Understanding

Of Ice and Men: John Steinbeck's account of a fateful expedition to Antarctica

Black and white photo of John Steinbeck.

Source: John Steinbeck 1962, Nobel

A three-cent postage stamp with expeditionary paths marked on a globe illustration, attributing “BYRD ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION II”

Source: Admiral Byrd Antarctic Expedition 1933
Issue-3c, USPOD, Wikimedia