When do you use capital letters?

In the English language most words are written in lower case. Exceptions are names of people, places, and things. But that’s not all you need to know. There are specific rules that apply in certain circumstances.

The basic rules for capitalisation

  • Sentences start with capital letters.
  • The first pronoun “I” is always a capital I.
  • Days and months: Monday, Tuesday, January, February
  • Names and nicknames: Thabo, Susan, Little Joe
  • Cities, countries, continents, regions: Paris, South Africa, Asia, the West Coast
  • Mountains, oceans, rivers, lakes, and deserts: Mount Everest, Atlantic Ocean, Nile, Lake Victoria, Namib Desert

The more complex rules


As a general rule: A title before the name is capitalised, after the name lower case.

Before a name
Minister of Education, Maria Rodriguez, said that by 2030 higher education would be free for all.

When you address someone by their title
“Will you be at the meeting, Minister?”

After a name
When you refer to titles as a description, it’s always lower case: John Smith is the managing director of ABCD Company.

Abbreviations like CEO, CFO, CA, which stand for chief executive officer, chief financial officer and chartered accountant, are written in capital letters. But when you use the full words, they’re written lower case.

Academic titles
Don’t capitalise academic titles unless followed by a name: Professor Joe Smith will attend.

Titles are lower case when following a name in a sentence: Mary Doe, assistant professor, will not attend.

Titles, like fellow, are capitalised if they’re part of the formal name of the fellowship, ie “a Fellow of the XYZ Society”.

In an event outline, on their email signature in caps:
John Smith, Chief Executive Officer, ABCD Company

Legislation and documents

  • Protection of Personal Information Act
  • Basic Conditions of Employment Act
  • Global Outlook Report 2020
  • WHO Report on Diseases in Africa

 Names of courts and other institutions

  • The Supreme Court of Appeal
  • The Constitutional Court
  • United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
  • International Monetary Fund

But when referred to in general and not by name, it’s court, tribunal, bargaining council, fund, commission, etc.

Legal documents

In legal documents words that identify parties in an agreement, or a court case, are usually written with capital letters: Defendant, Plaintiff, Seller, Buyer, Landlord, Lessee, etc.

But this is NOT the case when you use these words in any other piece of writing. Then the standard rule of writing English words in lower case applies:

The landlord, who was also the defendant, testified in court that he had communicated to the plaintiff that he was willing to reduce the monthly rental by 50% until the leaking roof was repaired.


Sentence case
This format is in line with the way English is written and it’s easy to read:

“When to start words with capital letters”

Title case
The first and last words are capitalised plus all others in between, except articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (but, because, so, etc) and prepositions (from, of, with, to, etc):

“When to Start Words with Capital Letters”

Sometimes this is quite difficult to figure out. And I believe it looks messy.

Unique upper/lower case abbreviations

Wireless fidelity = WiFi
High fidelity = HiFi
Science fiction = SciFi

© Andrea Paulsen