a. Capitalization


Academic writers often refer to such things as geographic locations, company names, temperature scales, and processes or apparatuses named after people, so it is helpful to learn to capitalize consistently and accurately. What follows are ten fundamental rules for capitalization. Check out the first rule. It gets fumbled in papers all the time.

Rule 1

Capitalize the names of major portions of your paper and all references to figures and tables. Note: Some journals and publications do not follow this rule, but most do.
  • my Introduction
  • see Figure 4
  • Appendix A
  • Airshaft X
  • Table 1
  • Graph


Rule 2

Capitalize the names of established regions, localities, and political divisions.
  • Wheeling Township
  • Clark County
  • the Wheat Belt
  • the French Republic
  • the United States
  • the Arctic Circle


Rule 3

Capitalize the names of highways, routes, bridges, buildings, monuments, parks, ships, automobiles, hotels, forts, dams, railroads, and major coal and mineral deposits.
  • Highway 1
  • Michigan Avenue
  • Alton Railroad
  • Herrin No. 6 seam
  • Route 1
  • the White House
  • the Statue of Liberty
  • the Queen Elizabeth


Rule 4

Capitalize the proper names of persons, places and their derivatives, and geographic names (continents, countries, states, cities, oceans, rivers, mountains, lakes, harbors, and valleys).
  • Howard Pickering
  • Chicago
  • New York Harbor
  • Rocky Mountains
  • Aleutian Islands
  • Great Britain
  • American
  • Gulf of Mexico
  • New Mexico
  • the Aleutian low


Rule 5

Capitalize the names of historic events and documents, government units, political parties, business and fraternal organizations, clubs and societies, companies, and institutions.
  • the Second Amendment
  • Congress
  • Republicans/Democrats
  • the Civil War
  • Bureau of Mines
  • Department of Energy


Rule 6

Capitalize titles of rank when they are joined to a person’s name, and the names of stars and planets. Note: The names earth, sun, and moon are not normally capitalized, although they may be capitalized when used in connection with other bodies of the solar system.
  • Professor Walker
  • Milky Way
  • President Barron
  • Venus


Rule 7

Capitalize words named after geographic locations, the names of major historical or geological time frames, and most words derived from proper names.

It’s helpful to note that the only way to be sure if a word derived from a person’s name should be capitalized is to look it up in the dictionary. For example, “Bunsen burner” (after Robert Bunsen) is capitalized, while “diesel engine” (after Rudolph Diesel) is not. Also, referring to specific geologic time frames, the Chicago Manual of Style says not to capitalize the words “era,” “period,” and “epoch,” but the American Association of Petroleum Geologists says that these words should be capitalized. I choose to capitalize them, as those who write in the geological sciences should by convention.

  • Coriolis force
  • English tweeds
  • Hadley cell
  • Boyle’s law
  • Planck’s constant
  • Middle Jurassic Period
  • the Industrial Revolution
  • Fourier coefficients
  • Petri dish
  • Klinkenberg effect
  • Mesozoic Era
  • the Inquisition


Rule 8

Capitalize references to temperature scales, whether written out or abbreviated.
  • 10 oF          Fahrenheit degrees
  • 22 oC         degrees Celsius


Common Capitalization Errors

Just as important as knowing when to capitalize is knowing when not to. Below, I set forth a few instances where capital letters are commonly used when they should not be. Please review this advice carefully, in that we all have made such capitalization errors. When in doubt, simply consult a print dictionary.

Rule 9

Do not capitalize the names of the seasons, unless the seasons are personified, as in poetry (“Spring’s breath”). (It is, of course, highly unlikely that you would personify a season in a technical paper, but it might come up in an academic paper.)
  • spring
  • winter


Rule 10

Do not capitalize the words north, south, east, and west when they refer to directions, in that their meaning becomes generalized rather than site-specific.
  • We traveled west.
  • The sun rises in the east.


Rule 11

In general, do not capitalize commonly used words that have come to have specialized meaning, even though their origins are in words that are capitalized.
  • navy blue
  • pasteurizaion
  • india ink
  • biblical


Rule 12

Do not capitalize the names of elements. Note: This is a common capitalization error, and can often be found in published work. Confusion no doubt arises because the symbols for elements are capitalized.
  • tungsten
  • oxygen
  • nitrogen
  • californium


Rule 13

Do not capitalize words that are used so frequently and informally that they have come to have highly generalized meaning.
  • north pole
  • arctic climate
  • midwesterner
  • big bang theory (the event, not the TV show)





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