December 29, 2022

Rules guiding capitalisation

By Ruth Oji

IN writing, there is often a need to capitalise different words. I find that it is usually problematic for many people in writing to know which words to capitalise and thus refrain from needless capitalising. This article serves as a refresher course on how to capitalise words. To begin, I examine the kind of words that require capitalisation and those that do not, and I proceed to share rules that can guide your use of capitalisation in different contexts.

From your knowledge of nouns, you may recall that a proper noun names a specific person, place, thing, or idea, while a common noun names a general class of people, places, things, or ideas. 

Between both kinds of nouns, which is to be capitalised? You got it right! Proper nouns (such as Ruth, Vivian, Christie, Vicky, Mr Biggs, Tantalizers) are always to be capitalised, while common nouns (such as tables, chairs, bed, fan, street) are never so. There are also words known as proper adjectives – they are derived from proper nouns and as such must be capitalised. 

Take as an example the word ‘Nigeria’. It names a place, a country; thus, it is a proper noun. However, when used as a proper adjective the word becomes ‘Nigerian’ – describing one from Nigeria. In the sentence ‘She is a Nigerian’, Nigerian is an adjective because it describes the pronoun ‘she’. Even though the word is an adjective and we normally wouldn’t capitalise adjectives, we capitalise Nigerian because as an adjective it is derived from a proper noun – Nigeria. The same goes for European, Elizabethan, Hungarian, and Austrian, among others.

Proper nouns and adjectives occur in many compound words. When this is the case, be sure to capitalise only the parts of these words that are capitalised when they stand alone. This means that you need not bother with capitalising prefixes such as ‘pro-‘, ‘un-‘, ‘anti-‘, ‘pre-‘ that are attached to proper nouns and adjectives. 

Now, reflect on the following rules that can help you clearly identify proper nouns and adjectives so you do not fail to capitalise them when writing. Capitalise people’s names, personal titles and initials that stand for names. Remember that it is only the first letter of the word that needs to be capitalised. For example, capitalise the ‘R’ and ‘O’ in Ruth Oji. Other examples include J. P. Clark, U. B. Denise, T. B. Joshua, and J. J. Okocha.

Capitalise titles and abbreviations for titles used before people’s names and in direct address: Reverend Matthew Kukah, President Muhammadu Buhari, Dr Ruth Oji (note that the decision to put a period after a title like ‘Dr.’, ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ is optional). In direct address: ‘Is this medication safe for me, Doctor?’ If the abbreviations Jr. and Sr. appear in the middle of a sentence, they should be followed by a comma. For example, ‘The thrust of the matter, according to Martin Luther King Jr., is that people should be free.’ 

Do note, however, that when a title follows a person’s name or is used without a proper name you should not capitalise the title –‘The doctor prescribed a safe medication for me’, ‘Muhammadu Buhari, president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, has given a talk.’ Notice in both examples that doctor and president are not capitalised because the former goes without a proper name and the latter appears after the person’s name.

Capitalise a title used without a person’s name if it refers to a head of state or a person in another important position: ‘The Chief Justice of Nigeria is attending to the case’; ‘The President of Nigeria will address the citizens today’; ‘The Pope visited the country yesterday’. 

And as previously mentioned, prefixes and suffixes are not capitalised when used with compound words. This also applies to when they are attached to titles, for example: ex-President Goodluck Jonathan; the Prime Minister-elect. Note though that the prefix ‘ex’ isn’t regularly used in formal writing. It is preferable to use ‘former’. How are family relationships to be capitalised? Capitalise the titles indicating family relationships when the titles are used as names or as parts of names: ‘The book Communication in Education was edited by darling Aunt Ruth, and Dad was so proud of her.’ ‘Uncle Jonathan and Aunt Naomi are lovely siblings.’ ‘Aunt Eky and Uncle Buchi got married last weekend.’ ‘Uncle Charles, Dad, Mom, and Aunt Renee are waiting for a happy reunion.’ 

When shouldn’t the title be capitalised? When it is preceded by an article or a possessive word, for example: ‘My aunt edited the book Communication in Education, and I am super proud of her because the book is fast selling out.’ ‘My mom and her aunt are good friends.’ ‘I think my uncle is planning to visit us this winter.’ ‘Hey, Rafika, is your dad going to be at the tournament?’ ‘Stop it! I’ll tell on you! My dad must hear this!’ 

Capitalise the names of all races, languages, nationalities, and religions, and any adjectives formed from these names: Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Efik, Akan, Krepi, Dagaare, Dagbane, Dutch, Ewe, Gonja, Kasem, Abkhaz, Achuar-Shiwiar, Afan Oromo, Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Baoule, Bassa, Batak, Bicol, Chichewa, Chinese Mandarin, Chitonga, Chokwe, Czech, Danish, Drehu, English, Esan, Estonian, Finnish, Fijian, Fon, German, Ga, Georgian, Gitonga, Greenlandic, Guarani, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Hopi, Hunsrik, Icelandic, Iloko, Indonesian, Inga, Italian, Jamaican Creole, Japanese, Kabiye, Kabuverdianu, Kamba, Kannada, Karen, Kazakh, Khakass, Kikaonde, Kikongo, Kikuyu, Kiluba, Kimbundu, Kiribati, Kongo, Korean, Kwangali, Lahu, Laotian, Latvian, Lingala, Lithuanian, Lomwe, Low German, Luganda, Lunda, Luo, Luvale, Macedonian, Macua, Macushi, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Maltese, Mam, Mambwe-Lungu, Manyawa, Mapudungun, Marathi, Mari, Mauritian Creole, Maya, Moore, Myanmar, Nahuati, Navajo, Ndau, Ndebele, Nepali, Nhengatu, Nias, Norwegian, Nyaneka, Nzema, Okpe, Ossetian, Otetela, Pangasinan, Papiamento, Pehuenche, Persian, Polish, Pomeranian, Ponapean, Portuguese, Punjabi, Quechua, Quichua, Rapa Nui, Romanian, Romany, Ronga, Russian, Saint Lucian Creole, Samoan, Sango, Sena, Sepedi, Sepulana, Serbian, Sesotho, Setswana, Seychelles Creole, Shona, Shuar, Silozi, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Solomon Islands Pidgin, Spanish, Sranantongo, Sunda, Swahili, Swati, Swedish, Tagalog, Tahitian, Tajiki, Talian, Tamil, Tatar, Telugu, Tetun Dili, Tewe, Thai, Ticuna, Tigrinya, Tiv, Tlapanec, Tojolabal, Tok Pisin, Tongan, Torres Strait Creole, Totonac, Tshiluba, Tshwa, Tsonga, Tucano, Turkish, Turkmen, Tuvaluan, Tuvinian, Twi, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Uighur, Ukrainian, Umbundu, Urdu, Uzbek, Valencian, Venda, Vietnamese, Wallisian, Wapishana, Waray-Waray, Wayuunaiki, Welsh, Xavante, Xhosa, Zapotec, Zulu,  Canadian, French, Togolese, Buddhism, Christianity, Christian, Islam, Muslim, Caucasian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, European, Egyptian, Australian, Austrian, American, and Hispanic.

Feel free to like and share this article, and don’t miss this page next week for a continuation of the article on capitalisation. Follow me on LinkedIn @RuthKarachiBensonOji for more tips on speaking and writing.

•Dr. Oji is a Senior Lecturer of English at the Institute of Humanities, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos