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Capitalization in APA, Chicago, MLA, and AP

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September 29, 2016
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I know a professor who had a student tell him that capitalization is not standardized, so she was going to lowercase the word “Nazi” because she it found offensive to do otherwise.

capitalizationpic1Even worse, I have been noticing recently that willy-nilly use of upper- and lowercase letters is pretty common, although it is far from correct.

So I thought it time to review some basic capitalization rules. Here are the types of words that should be capitalized:

  • Proper nouns. Proper nouns are names of particular individuals, places, or things, such as Josephina, Michigan, Oreo, and United Auto Workers. That means that official names of departments and units should be capitalized and not when referring to just a type of department or unit. For example, “OSU’s History Department is very good,” vs. “She works in the history department at her university.”
  • Words that come from proper nouns. For example, Chilean wine and French fries.
  • First words. Words at the beginning of a sentence, the first word of a new speaker’s dialogue, and words in a letter’s salutation or closing should all be capitalized.
  • Titles of works. Titles of songs, books, stories, and other named works should be capitalized. Make sure to capitalize the first word and last words of a title and all other “important” words (e.g., nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, subordinate conjunctions). More on this later.
  • Personal titles. These are capitalized only when they come immediately before the name (President Obama, Ambassador Temple-Black) or after the name in the closing of a letter, as in “Sincerely, Mary Smith, Principal”

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Most everything else should be lowercase, and if you follow these rules you should be OK about 99% of the time. (An aside to Those of You tempted to capitalize things for Emphasis: Don’t do It.)

However, there are some nit-picky details to remember when dealing with differences among the style guides. AP, MLA, Chicago, and APA mostly agree on these basic rules, but there are certain words and expressions over which they do not.

  • Titles of works: All the style guides say to capitalize first and last words and all other words in titles except conjunctions (e.g., and, or, nor, yet, but), prepositions (e.g., for, over, up, on), and articles (a, an, and the). Chicago and MLA apply this rule to all words regardless of length, but AP and APA say to capitalize any word in a title, even a preposition, with five or more letters.
  • Internet terms: This year, the AP came out with a new rule that all such terms should be lowercase, so it suggests web, website, and internet. Chicago, APA, and MLA all say to use Internet and World Wide Web but web and website.
  • Color words for race: Chicago, AP, and MLA all say to lowercase black and white when used to designate race. Chicago does have the caveat that authors with a strong preference to capitalize these words may do so. APA disagrees and says that authors should use Black and White. This issue has been written about quite a bit, such as in the blog Grammarphobia and in the New York Times.

If you are ever in doubt about whether a certain word should be capitalized, first check your style guide for rules about the word. If your style guide doesn’t have a rule, check your dictionary. (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is a good one.) If you don’t find it either place, just follow the basic rules, and you should be just fine!

Sarah P.

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