Writing Tip: To capitalize or not to capitalize

Laura Hale Brockway writes about writing at http://www.impertinentremarks.com/

She contributed this brilliant piece at the PR Daily, one of my favorite writing sites. Read it here then check out more writing tips at her website.

If I don’t know the answer to a spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, or style question, I know where to look it up—or so I thought.

The question that stumped me this week came when I was writing a medical case study. In the case, a patient complained of a “charley horse.” My question: Do you capitalize the “c” in “charley horse”?

After searching through several stylebooks for rules about capitalization, I was unable to find a clear answer. I asked a colleague, and her response was, “What difference does it make if it’s capitalized or not?” I finally turned to the “MedlinePlus Medical Dictionary” and discovered that the “c” is not capitalized.

I continued writing the case study, but curiosity about the capitalization rules for proper nouns or (pseudo-proper nouns) sidetracked me. Here are seven easy rules to refer to, which include numerous examples:

1. Capitalize geographic names, including the names of canyons, dams, and regions.

• the Antarctic
• Third World
• the West Coast

2. Capitalize the names of languages, nationalities, ethnicities, political parties, religions, and deities.

• Indian food
• English language
• Protestant
• the Holy Spirit

3. Capitalize the names of historical and special events, historical periods, and awards.

• Elizabeth Age
• The Great Depression
• Purple Heart

4. Capitalize the official titles of organization, businesses, conferences, and governmental agencies. Do not capitalize the conjunctions, articles, or prepositions of three or fewer letters within these names. Do not capitalize “the” unless it is part of the official title.

• House of Representatives
• Council of Science Editors
• The University of Texas at Austin

5. For eponyms, capitalize the proper name but not the common nouns that follow.

• Down syndrome
• Achilles heel
• Caesar salad
• Draconian laws

6. Capitalize a person’s title when it comes before the person’s name, but not when it follows the name.

• President Laura Brockway led the meeting.
• Laura Brockway was named president.

7. Do not capitalize most common words derived from proper nouns. In general follow the current edition of your “house” dictionary. (For medical terms, that’s Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.)

• Darwinian
• Mendelian
• brussels sprouts
• arabic numerals
• charley horse

Next time you’re stumped by a capitalization question—don’t call a colleague. Check the latest edition of your favorite dictionary. Dictionaries always provide an answer, but they never question your motives.


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