Capitalisation in academic writing
1. In this context “capitalisation” means capitalising the initial letter of a word and not every letter on the word.
2. This article is not exhaustive, but gives general advice and some examples on this subject.
Capitalisation in academic writing can be a controversial issue. Although it is universally accepted that proper nouns should be capitalised, there are different opinions regarding other words. A good general rule is to capitalise only when absolutely necessary because over-capitalisation can look awkward. Different educational establishments have different style rules and writers should always abide by these. However, whether or not there are style rules, MA & PhD students should always be consistent in their use of capitals and be able to justify why they have or have not used capitals.
Words that are always capitalised
1. The first word of a sentence
2. Proper nouns, that is names of people, places, companies, organisations and so on; for example, the University of London, the Department of Chemistry
3. Days of the week and months of the year
4. Adjectives which are derived from proper nouns; for example, French window, English essay
5. Religious names; for example, the Bible, the Quran
6. Names of planets; for example, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, but it is not usual to capitalise sun, moon, earth.
7.Titles before names: Mr Jones, Mrs Smith, Dr Green (Please note that it is not usual to place a full stop after these titles, although this practice was common in the past.)
Words that are capitalised according to their meaning
1 Internet is capitalised when used as a noun; for example, “I searched the Internet when conducting research”, but it is not capitalised when used as an adjective; for example, “I now have a new internet provider.”
2 “Department” is capitalised when it refers to a specific department; for example, the Mathematics Department, but not when used generally; for example; government departments
3. Titles and positions; for example, “in all companies, managing directors have considerable responsibility”.
Words that are not capitalised
1. Seasons of the year: spring, summer, autumn, winter
2. Plural nouns; for example, “Six presidents and two kings attended the conference”. “Oxford and Cambridge universities are the oldest universities in England.”
3. Species of plants or animals: for example: “Environmentalists are concerned about the decline the population of pandas in China which may be due to the decline in bamboo plants.”
4. The first word of items in a list following a colon; for example,
“Scientists consider the following to be reasons for signs of climate change:
melting of the ice caps
rise in temperature
rising sea levels
greater volume of carbon dioxide.”
However, please note that if a sentence follows a colon (although this is unusual), the first word is capitalised.
Words that are capitalised according to style or personal preference
This category often involves titles such as president, prime minister, king, queen, chancellor. When used alone, it is more usual not to capitalise them. “The president opened the new embassy”. However, some styles would require them to be capitalised, such as “The new French embassy was opened by the President”. This sentence implies the “President of France” so the word would be more likely to be capitalised.
When such titles are accompanied by a specific name, they are always capitalised; for example, “Queen Elizabeth II”, “The Chancellor of Germany, “The Secretary General of the United Nations”.
What if I am not sure?
Although it is clear that some words should always be capitalised and others should not, writers of essays can be uncertain whether or not to use capitals. This may be resolved in the following ways:
1. Since most universities recommend that capitalisation should only be used if absolutely necessary, ask yourself “Why have I capitalised this letter?”
2. Read the style sheet of the university/establishment concerned and abide by this.
3. Whatever decision you reach, always be consistent and ensure that you always apply the same logic in deciding whether or not to capitalise.
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