The Case of Capitalization

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Capitalization can be confounding to beginning writers. Some words are easy to remember, like proper names and places. But what about ages and time periods? Regions and geographical areas? And diseases – are all diseases capitalized, or just some, and what’s the difference?

The answer to some of these questions is it depends on the documentation style you are using. For our purposes here, we’ll refer to MLA style unless otherwise noted.

Titles in Names

When a proper name is preceded with a title, like judge or professor, the titles will be capitalized.

  • I took British Literature from Professor Kennedy.
  • We were married at the courthouse by Judge Baker.
  • Boys Town was started by Father Flanagan.

However, do not capitalize titles when they stand alone.

  • When I grow up, I hope to be a professor.
  • My uncle is a judge.

When referencing family names, only capitalize the relationship when they are part of the person’s title.

  • Her Aunt Cindy is a lawyer in New York.
  • Her aunt is an expert quilter.
  • My mother has a huge record collection.

 Time Periods

If the time period is referred to by a specific name, it is capitalized.

  • the Middle Ages
  • Paleozoic Era
  • the Dark Ages
  • Age of Enlightenment

When used as a descriptive, no capitalization is necessary.

  • The antebellum period
  • classical Greece
  • ancient Egypt

Locations

North, South, East, and West are capitalized when indicating geographical regions. Regions such as the Mid Atlantic, Silicon Valley, and Midwest are capitalized. Usually if “the” can go in front of the word, it is capitalized.

  • American West
  • Atlantic
  • The Northeast
  • The South

North, south, northwest, etc. are not capitalized when indicating a direction or used as an adjective.

  • The western United States
  • eastern Europe
  • southern France
  • She drove south through Atlanta.

Diseases

Diseases named after regions and people are capitalized. Ebola and West Nile are capitalized, as both are named from the regions where they originated (Ebola is a river in Zaire, and West Nile is a region in Uganda). Alzheimer’s disease, Asperger’s syndrome, and Down’s syndrome are named after the doctors who discovered the diseases. However, there are differences between style guides as to whether they are possessive. If in doubt, follow the style used in your field of study or your textbook.

Most disease names are not capitalized, as the names are derived from some hallmark of the condition, according to Grammar Girl. Diabetes, autism, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis would not be capitalized.

Final Thoughts

This is only the tip of the capitalization iceberg. Always refer to the style guide in your specific field, as many vary on their formatting. For instance, according to the Grammar Girl, the directional terms that describe people differ, depending on the style book. Associated Press, used for magazines and newspapers, prefers “Southerner,” whereas Chicago Manual of Style prefers “southerner.”

It’s most important to stay consistent, regardless of the style you use.

For more help with capitalization questions, visit The Grammar Book or Grammar Girl.

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