Tuesday, May 24

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, May 24, 2011 10 comments
Today's question comes via my Triplicity contest. You, too, can earn extra chances to win an Amazon gift card by asking me editing questions! Click HERE for more details and to enter.

Dear Editor-on-Call:
When should you capitalize a noun such as "the Virus"? In my WIP, the characters refer to a virus which ended up wiping out most of the human population. Would it be correct to say "the Virus" when referring to it? If so, when they speak of it as belong to a certain person (the creator) would they say "his virus" or "his Virus"?

--Capitals Conundrum
a.k.a. Susan Fields

Dear Cap,
The general rule on capitalization in English is to capitalize proper nouns. In other words, NAMES of specific things.

People and animals
Bob Marley. Billy the Kid. Bo Jangles. Street Sense (racehorse). Tolkien Raintree Mister Baggins (show dog).

Adjectives based on names are also capitalized--Alexander technique, Freudian slip.

Places and Organizations
Seattle. Republic of Congo. Piccadilly Circus. Shop Rite. Grover Cleveland High School. Purdue University. Red Cross. Roman Catholic Church.

Adjectives based on places are also capitalized--French fries, English grammar.

Titles of artistic works (art, music, writing, film, drama)
The Mona Lisa. The Marriage of Figaro. To the Lighthouse. "She Walks in Beauty." Terminator. Waiting for Godot.

Trademarked products
Kleenex. Big Mac. Kindle.

Named events and holidays
Cloverdale County Fair. Annual Walk for Peace. Easter. Rosh Hashanah.

Calendar units (for lack of a better category)
Summer. September. Friday.

The category of noun you describe is a thing. It's less common for a thing to be specifically named, unless it is an artistic work, a trademarked product or a copy of a living thing (Barbie, Winnie the Pooh). We more often use generic terms that the grammar gurus call "common nouns": tree, couch, daisy, leopard, skateboard, pork chop, party, secretary, professor, chemistry, sculpture.

You might have only one spleen, but I'm willing to bet you haven't named it. Likewise, diseases are not treated like proper nouns unless they are named after a person or another proper noun (like a place).

Julie has diabetes, Glenn has Parkinson's disease and their puppy has Lyme disease.
Jared might have irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's disease.
Baby Miles needs measles, mumps and rubella inoculations.

If you want to give your fictional virus a name that takes a capital, name it for its creator or the one who discovered it: Malfoy virus, for example. Otherwise, refer to it simply as "the virus" and "his virus."

Which of these trip you up? Any follow-up questions on capitalization rules?


  1. Wowsa! I just learned so much. Thank you. I always get tripped up about which words in a title don't get capitolized. (Like The Marriage of Figaro) 'the', 'of', 'in', 'for'? Any others?

  2. This is so helpful. Thanks Laurel.

  3. Melissa: the rule is conjunctions (and, but, for, etc.) and articles (a, an ,the) aren't capitalized within titles, only when they're the initial word: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is an good example.

    It's the part of speech, not the length of word that matters. Often people leave short verbs like "do" lowercase, which is incorrect.

  4. Wow, great post today Laurel, thanks! I'm usually good with what words should be capitalized or lowercase, but those diseases (and sometimes seasons, depending on the context) always trip me up!

    Also I'm a relatively new follower. Love your blog so far and can't wait to read more! :)



  5. Hmm... but maybe, I'm just wondering here, what if it's what the whole "world" is calling it... Like the Virus. Couldn't that be OK in that situation?

    I was just wondering. Like short for the Virus (which must not be named). LOL!! :D just being devil's advocate. Good stuff here~ <3

  6. Great summary. Ditto LTM. What if something grows so big that something like the Virus becomes a name unto itself.

  7. Michael: Glad you found it useful.

    Red Angel: Thanks so much. When I'm in doubt I always look it up. Some of these rules seem kind on inconsistent--like adjective forms of some of these stay capitalized--like Freudian, while summery and autumnal are not. Ugh.

  8. Leigh and Laura: Thanks for hopping in and giving a little push-back. Ha! I loves me some debate.

    Maybe I'm a stick in the mud here, but I don't at all like the trend of capitalizing nouns willy-nilly. It strikes me a hokey and an oddball adoption of German grammar. German capitalizes every noun, but English parted from its Germanic roots nearly a milennia ago, after the Norman invasion.

    There is precedence for Susan's situation. "The Plague" (a.k.a. Black Death) in the Middle Ages. The capitalized name does not refer specifically to the disease bubonic plague itself, though, but the EVENT of that wiped out 1/3 of Europe's population. It's kind of a fine-grained distinction.

  9. This is helpful!

    I sometimes mess up when capitalizing regions and directions.

  10. Thanks for answering my question, Laurel - so helpful!