A hallmark of amateur writing that will quickly cause most editors to lose interest in a manuscript is improper capitalization. This includes both capitalizing letters that shouldn’t be capitalized and not capitalizing letters that should have been capitalized.
On the surface, this is a simple issue—we all know to capitalize proper nouns (names) and the first word of a sentence. But there are all sorts of unusual or complicated situations that can arise when you’re composing something as substantial as a novel. For instance, I have often seen sentences like this:
“I’m an English Major, but my girlfriend is a Chemistry Major.”
There are two things wrong with that sentence. First, the word major should not be capitalized—many people simply feel like it’s supposed to be capitalized since it’s paired with the capitalized subject of the major (English and Chemistry in this case), but it should be lowercase. But wait! That’s not all. Chemistry shouldn’t be capitalized in that example, either. The only school subjects that should be capitalized are languages—English, Spanish, Russian, etcetera—because they are adjectives derived from proper nouns (England, Spain, Russia, etcetera). So the above example should be written like this:
“I’m an English major, but my girlfriend is a chemistry major.”
|Thank you to xkcd for almost always having a relevant comic for my needs.|
Now, I could fill pages and pages with all the little rules of which words should be capitalized and which words shouldn’t. I’m not going to, however, because Jane Straus has already done a fantastic job of that over at GrammarBook.com. If I were to write a full post on capitalization, it would basically be a near-word-for-word copy of hers, so I’m not going to waste the energy. I’ll just recommend that you go check out her post on capitalization—read the article, bookmark the page, and reference it often.
That post will also be a handy guide for helping you decide whether or not to capitalize words that you make up—if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, for instance. Check back here in the next week or two for additional guidelines on that particular subject.
And don't forget to check out my post on capitalization in dialog tags.