January 11, 2012

back to basics: capitalization and spelling

Alright, today we’re going to jump into capitalization and spelling. Next week, we’ll talk about punctuation and grammar. This stuff is pretty straightforward. And almost unnecessary, since most of us use a word processor to write. I rely heavily on MS Word to find my typos and fix my writing as I go, as I imagine many writers do. But it’s important to know the rules, especially with punctuation.


Always capitalize the first word of a sentence, as demonstrated with the “always” at the beginning of this sentence. Capitalize proper nouns, such as people, places, brands, titles, etc. Names, really. You also capitalize the first word in dialogue or a quote. For instance:

Researchers have found that “boogeymen do in fact exist, lurking in the dark crevasses of children’s bedrooms”, noted in The Boogeyman Agenda.  

My sister replied, “I told Tori it was a bad idea, but she didn’t listen.”

Capitalizing titles is a tricky business. Songs, films, books, poems, bands, store names, and most academic essays require that you capitalize every word other than articles and prepositions, unless that article or preposition is at the beginning of the title. For instance:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Dancing on the Inside by Glen C. Strathy
The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

There are special cases, especially with poetry. A prime example is the work of poet e.e. cummings, such as his poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town”. The titles of Emily Dickinson’s poetry are also great examples because her titles reflect the first lines of her poems, since she never titled them except with numbers, such as “A Pang is more conspicuous in Spring” and “The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met”. When citing such works, it’s best to keep to the original capitalization.

You may notice that the title of my blog and most of my post titles are in all lowercase letters. I find lowercase letters more pleasing to the eye.

Some words require all caps, such as abbreviations (FBI, NASA, URL, DNA, etc.). But never—and I mean never—is it okay to use all caps in your writing. BECAUSE IT MAKES THE READER FEEL LIKE THE AUTHOR IS SHOUTING AT THEM. PEOPLE ON SOCIAL MEDIA LIKE TO USE ALL CAPS, AND I USUALLY UNFOLLOW/UNFRIEND/UNCIRCLE THOSE PEOPLE. Except in certain situations, when they want to emphasize something. Then all caps is okay. For instance, on Twitter, Maureen Johnson tweeted: “I cannot put this bluntly enough: no one cares if you have a writing degree, in terms of getting published. THEY DO NOT CARE.” Perfectly acceptable.


Again, for those of you using a word processor to write, most of the time, the program will correct words for you, or when you’ve really misspelled something, it will offer suggestions. However, there are some words it won’t catch, specifically, homophones, specifically heterographs (words that sound like one another but have completely different meanings).

For example, ones I see the most often on social media:

they’re – their – there
forward – foreword
bare – bear
to – too – two
brake – break
finish – Finnish (not kidding)
buy – by
serial – cereal
coarse – course
hear – here
whole – hole
won – one
idle – idol
peace – piece
principal – principle
sight – site
affect – effect
accept – except
it’s – its
weather – whether
who’s – whose
you’re – your

Be sure that you are using the proper spelling of a word, because even though it sounds the same, it’s the wrong word. I do understand that sometimes, when you’re typing really fast, it’s easy to slip and type the wrong word. I do it all the time. Just be aware of the homophones so that you can find them in your writing and fix them. For a more comprehensive list, do a Google search. There are plenty of sources on homophones online.

And here is a fantastic comic from The Oatmeal, explaining some commonly misspelled words:

There are a few spelling rules to remember, too (grabbed from this public school website):

i before e, except after c, or when sounding like A, as in neighbor and weigh.

When adding a prefix, don’t change the spelling of the word.

When adding the suffix –ness or –ly, don’t change the spelling of the word.

Exceptions: for most words that end in y, changed the y to I before –ly or –ness (happy + ly = happily; friendly + ness = friendliness)

Drop the final silent e before a suffix beginning with a vowel (cause + ing = causing; reverse + ible = reversible)

Keep the final silent e before a suffix beginning with a consonant (hope + less = hopeless; agree + ment = agreement)

For words ending in a consonant plus y, change the y to i before any suffix that does not begin with i (cry + ed = cried; pretty + er = prettier)

Double the final consonant before adding –ing, –ed, or –est to a one-syllable words that ends in a single vowel followed by a single consonant (beg + ing = begging; bat + ed = batted)

The website goes on to talk about pluralizing nouns, so you should book mark this page if you have trouble with spelling.

When in doubt, use a dictionary, either a paper one or a digital one. Dictionary.com is what I use. And use your word processor’s built-in dictionary. Most of the time, it’s right.

So there you are, a crash course on capitalization and spelling. Tune in next week for a lesson in grammar.


  1. Spelling is a nightmare for me...because of the stupid homophones!!!!!! So I guess my problem isn't ACTUALLY with spelling, but remembering which word is the one I want to use...and that I'm typing so fast I don't pay enough attention to word choice.

    Incidentally, I really appreciate these "Back to Basics" bits. I don't struggle with them really, but it really is nice to take a moment and review. Keep it up!

  2. "as I imaging many writers do" *imagine - lol ;)
    -Signed, The Spelling/Grammar Nazi

  3. @Esther - lol. oops! i'm so bad about typos like that.