Monday, February 06, 2012

A Capital Idea! Knowing What to Capitalize

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Capitalization might seem like a no-brainer, but if you happen to write science fiction or fantasy (and possibly historical), odds are you've found yourself wondering if something should be capitalized or not. All those made up names feel like they ought to be capitalized, but then you end up with a bit of a mess. Try this:
Grundark made his way through the Emporium, carrying his Pouchblade and three bags of Elbonquin wine for the Regent's Flowering Ceremony. Crowds of Hillmen bumped into him, but the shy Filmori stayed at the edges of the street.
While this paragraph is also a good example why you shouldn't name everything (do you have any idea what most of those things even are?), all those capital letters feel off, calling too much attention to things that shouldn't be focused on so much. It's just awkward.

One trick I use is to replace the made up words with their real counterparts. It makes it a lot easier to see what's actually a proper noun (a specific thing vs a type of thing) and what's just a noun.
George made his way through the Mall, carrying his Pocketknife and three bags of Chardonnay wine for the King's Birthday Celebration. Crowds of Humans bumped into him, but the shy Dutch stayed at the edges of the street.
Some of those capitals look pretty silly now, don't they? Let's look at the pieces individually.

Grundark: Given names of specific people, of course, should be capitalized. Easy peasy here.

Emporium: This one could technically go either way. If the particular shopping area is called "Emporium" then you'd be okay with capitalizing it. If it's just a fancy way of describing where people shop in your world, it's lowercase. People go the mall, but the also go to Rodeo Drive.

Pouchblade: It is possible for the knife to be a particular kind of knife, like Bowie knife (named after a specific person, so Bowie is capitalized). But keep in mind that that's different from a butcher's knife (a general type of knife, so it's lowercase). If someone named the knife (like Excalibur) then you'd capitalize it.

Elbonquin: Similar to the type of knife, a description of something generally isn't capitalized. Wines come in many flavors and grow in many regions, so unless it's a specific place (like a Burgundy, from Burgundy, France) it's lowercase. If they can make it anywhere, it doesn't need that capital letter

The Regent: Titles are capitalization nightmares. If it's associated with a name, it's capitalized, if not, it's lowercase. My personal test here is to replace it with "president" to see which it would be.
  • President Whitmire (title + name = capitalization). 
  • The president was in a meeting. (reference to general role, so lowercase) 
  • "Can I get you anything, Mr. President?" (used as a proper name, so uppercase). 
This also holds true for military ranks. Captain Bob. The caption was late. "Are you sure about that, Captain?" Another test if you're still unsure about "the X" -- if there were three of the word in question in a room, would it be clear who you meant? If Presidents Carter, Ford, and Clinton were all at the table, who is "the president?" They all are, so use the lowercase.

Flowering Ceremony: Another very tricky area. It's a ceremony, and it's a specific ceremony, but so is a birthday party and you don't capitalize that. Context will matter here, so look at how it's used in the story. Is this something that happens on a regular basis? Like an inauguration or a coronation? If so, it's lowercase. But the specific day might be capitalized, like:
Plans for the flowering ceremony were going well. They expected it to be a beautiful Flowering Day. 
If you're unsure, look for the closest real world event and see how that's handled.

Hillmen: This one is probably the worst of the capitalization offenders. Species are not capitalized. Humans are lowercase, so if this is a race of "person" in your world, odds are its lowercase as well. You'd have elves, dwarves, orcs, fairies, vampires, etc. Of course, if it's a specific group within that species, you'd capitalize that: It's a dog, but that dog might be a German Shepherd. So you'd have elves, which might contain High Elves and Wood Elves.

Filmori: If you're referring to a particular resident of a region, then it's capitalized. Americans. Germans. New Yorkers. This also applies to organizations of particular people. The Fae, the Mob, the Sith. So you might have orcs after you, but they could be the Bloodthorn Orcs.

Let's go back and see how we'd write that opening paragraph now.
Grundark made his way through the emporium, carrying his pouchblade and three bags of elbonquin wine for the regent's flowering ceremony. Crowds of hillmen bumped into him, but the shy Filmori stayed at the edges of the street.
Quite the difference. It also helps put these terms in context so the reader has a better sense of what they are. Filmori likely come from Filmor, while hillmen are a race of people. A pouchblade is probably a small knife, and likely bought at the emporium. I bet you can also get elbonquin wine there, too.

There might be times when you choose to break a rule for the sake of emphasis, and that's okay. I'm pretty sure "the Duke" was capitalized all through my trilogy, when technically, in many cases "the duke" was grammatically correct. Sometimes you want to make sure readers are clear on who someone is and that they're important. The Duke was a specific person of great importance, so I wanted him to stand out. If you have a similar situation, feel free to capitalize away.

The goal of a capital letter is to make sure readers know the word refers to something specific, not just a general group or type. They're a bit like exclamation points that way. Use too many of them and the emphasis vanishes.

Do you struggle with what to capitalize in your story? What words do you commonly see capitalized that probably shouldn't be?


  1. Thanks for the useful tips!

  2. These tips are so helpful. And yes, sometimes I struggle with this, especially in a fantasy world where I'm making about a lot of new terms. I'm moving towards trying to name them more commonly to avoid these problems. Thanks.

  3. SO helpful - thank you!!! What about directions - North, South, East and West? I always get mixed up on those too. e

  4. Great post. Very useful to see, and clarifies a lot of questions on that topic. :-)

  5. Oh great post and super useful! I love the replace with a real equivalent thing. Easy and simple to use!

  6. I appreciate the helpful comparison example. I struggle with directions more than most other sometimes-capitalized words. For example, North vs. South refers to sides in either an all-star football game or the Civil War. But north vs. south in terms of which direction is a better route is not (I think) Then there's the South, meaning those who live in the southern US (or is it Southern US). But there's also the south, as in, "Off to the south he saw a snow-capped mountain."

    I can usually figure out what's correct, but it's not as intuitive as I wish it could be.

  7. I hate to disagree with you on this point, but I'm afraid I have to. As far as Algonquin goes, it would have to be capitalized. Algonquins were a specific Native American tribe to the northeast. It's also a place in New York. So because of those two things that we know for sure, even if it is wine we're describing, I would captialize Algonquin.

  8. This is a FANTASTIC way to look at it. I've had countless debates with some beta readers about capitalization.

    One of the challenges I still face pertains to religious matters. The Goddess and her Will, her Wrath, her Grace.. I guess I'm not enough of a bible savant to understand when to capitalize things and when to leave them be.

    When in doubt (as I was), I went with the lower-case.. and assumed it was a style discussion to be had with an editor (or agent) at a later date.

    Thanks for the post!

  9. How timely, Joanne! I've just gone through my ms deleting many capitals and I can see now what I've done is right. Much better!

  10. Andrea, most welcome!

    Natalie, that's one way to get around the problem :)

    Elizabeth D & Chris, ooo directions. Same rules apply. If it refers to a specific name/place it's capitalized. Chris' North vs South examples are correct. The replace trick can work here as well with a little finagling. "Off to the left (indicates general direction not specific place) he saw a snow-capped mountain." "People in the South (a specific area comprising of the southern states of the US) tend to be friendly." If it's part of the name like North Carolina, it's a capital, a general region like south Georgia, it's lowercase. The one exception here is if the "area" is referred to often enough it has its own name, like Southern California. Does that help?

    SBibb, thanks!

    Jonyangorg, that's what finally worked for me. :)

    Anne, disagree away, especially when you're right. I didn't realize I'd used a proper noun there (though it did sound familiar so I should have). I'll replace Algonquin
    now to fix that. Thanks for pointing it out!

    Paul, Gods are usually capitalized because they refer to a specific god. If you're referring to a group, like "the gods would be mad" it's lowercase. You can use the title rules for this one. "I saw God." "He saw his god." "Thank you My Lord." It's not uncommon for the pronouns to be capitalized as well. "We basked in His holy light." Though the stylebooks here will say use lowercase.

    Sheryl, perfect!

  11. I think my head just exploded, but yes, that helped. Thanks! :) e

  12. You're my hero! Thank you so much for this helpful advice.

  13. Wow. What a great summary of the possible problems inherent in creative capitalization. I have a few tricks, but seeing all of these at once is amazing. I've bookmarked this page because I don't know how many times I have to stop and consider whether something I've made up is a common or proper noun.

    Truly helpful post.

  14. Elizabeth, hehe need help cleaning up those brains? I'll get Cadaver Dan...

    Joan, most welcome!

    Curtis, thanks! Glad it helped.

  15. Great summary! I've lost count of the number of times I've been looking up capitalization since starting writing!

  16. Thanks Rinelle! It makes me crazy sometimes, especially with fantasy. I usually try to find a matching "real" word and see how that's used. Helps a lot. Like we say human, so we'd say elf, not Elf.

  17. Thanks so much, Janice! But can you clarify something for me? In writing fantasy novels, you should capitalize a possessive identifier, right? Like the 'my' in 'My King' or 'My Lady' etc? But not 'the' as in 'the King' or 'the Queen' unless of course if it's the start of the sentence..

    Also, I am a little confused when and when not to capitalize common nouns such as mother and father. They're supposed to be common and thus, they should be in lower case, but I've read books which capitalize 'Mother' and 'Father' a couple of times and it's confusing me a little.

    Thanks in advance! And this blog is really really helpful, especially to young writers such as myself! (:

    PS: Do you happen to have a post regarding the proper use of verb tenses? Like when I'm using the past tense for a novel, when is it appropriate to construct a sentence in the present tense? Especially if I'm using the 1st person POV. I hope I'm not asking too much! Thanks!

    1. Correct. My Lord is like saying Mr. President. You're referring to a specific person (proper noun) not an institution (noun). The president went to Camp David vs President Smith went to Camp David, or Mr. President, would you like to go to Camp David?

      Mother would be capitalized if it was a name replacement, like a child saying Mom just like they'd call a friend Bob. But if someone was referring to Bob's mother, it would be lowercase, because it's a noun, not a name.

      It can be really confusing :) When I'm not sure, I try to find the closest real world title and see how that would be used. President works really well for titles since it's used in the same way.

      I don't think I have anything on tenses, but I know someone who would do a great article on that. I'll see if she has time to write one for me.

      No worries, questions are always welcome!

  18. Great help but I'm still getting a little confused especially when I see word like Dementor, Gungan, Tautuan in capitals, but wizard, jawa and gods in lowercase, is this just the author or am I missing something? Thanks

    1. Authors will capitalize what they want even if it technically shouldn't be, so there is no hard and fast rule. Usually, something capitalized like that designates importance, but not always. I'd say Tautuan doesn't need to be, since it's an animal, like lion or horse, but if the author felt it had to be, that's their call :) Jawa is iffy, because do they mean it like a country (French) or like a race (human)? Nationalities are usually capitalized, where race is not. Gungan and jawa ought to be the same in my book, both lowercase to show race :)

      Hope that clears it up and didn't make it more confusing.

    2. Thank you so much for your reply, it really cleared things up. Love the site.

  19. Janice, this is best blog on capitalization for fantasy writers! On the subject I see so many different styles.

    My editor wants me to uncapitalize half of my novel including the chief governing body of a country, which is a made-up name. I disagree.

    But on the matter of specific rooms in a building, (like the Oval Office in the White House), I see nothing on this subject about other rooms in a building especially in fantasy. In some books, Great Hall is capitalized and in others, it’s not. J. K. Rowling capitalized the Room of Requirement, Chamber of Secrets but oddly not the forbidden forest.

    Are there any rules for specific rooms other than the general kitchen, bathroom, library, study?


    1. Thanks! Aside from regular capitalization rules, no. And every writer (and editor) is going to do it however they see fit, so it will vary. I try to find the equivalent in the real world and see how it's handled.

      For example, the Oval Office is unique, so it would be capitalized. The Great Hall might not be if every castle has a great hall (that would be like calling it The Living Room of every house). But if The Hall of Greatness is a specific place that only exists in one castle, then you'd probably capitalize it.

      Basic rule I thumb I like: if it's a general place and not a specific noun, lowercase. If it's a specific place and/or a unique noun, capitalize.

  20. This is the most helpful thing I have ever read. Please write a book and sell it to me.

  21. Very helpful article, Janice! I'm copyediting a short story for someone, and it's SF/Fantasy and I'm not sure what to capitalize and what to leave lower case. I write contemporary romance, and we usually don't have to deal with this stuff!

    1. Glad it found you at the right time! Best of luck with that copy edit.