Writing Mini-Lessons: Four Capitalization Confusions

Most of you are very knowledgeable about capital letters. You understand the basic differences between common nouns and proper nouns—that the names of specific people and places should be capitalized. You recognize that first words of sentences and first, last, and important words in titles require capital letters. However, there are a few lingering problems with capitalization, places where capitalization has proved confusing. Here are four rules about capitalization to clear up a few capitalization misunderstandings:

  1. School subjects, such as math and science, don’t take capitals: they are general fields of study, not titles of specific courses. An exception is English, which does take a capital because it is the name of a language—as are Spanish, French, and German. Later in your schooling, when you write titles of specific college courses, you will capitalize: History 101 or Earth Science 203.
  2. Seasons of the year are not capitalized: It was a beautiful spring day; I love summer best; the leaves are colorful in fall; we will travel south in winter. However, specific seasonal events and occasions do take caps: Fall Carnival or Winter Formal.
  3. The directions of the compass are not capitalized: north, south, east, and west aren’t capitalized unless the writer is referring to a specific place or region: the Northeast, the Southwest, or East Petaluma.
  4. Words like mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa sometimes require a capital and sometimes do not: it depends on the context in which the words are used. Here’s the rules: If there’s a personal pronounmy, our, herin front of the family role, there’s not a capital letter. It’s merely an identification, not a name: my mom, our dad, here grandma—like his dog, their cat, my eel. However, if there’s no personal pronoun, and you’re using the word as though it’s a first name, then do capitalize it: I asked Mom for some cash; I hollered for Dad to come help me with my homework; she loves Grandma’s home-baked pies. A good test is to substitute the first name of the relative in question. If your mother’s name is Diane, and you can say in your sentence about her, “I asked Diane for money,” then mom will be capitalized. But if your original sentence was “I asked my mom for money,” when you substitute Diane for mom, you get “I asked my Diane for money.” This cues you that in this case, mom will be lowercase—a common noun, not the proper noun of a person’s name.