Thursday, October 4

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, October 04, 2018 2 comments
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

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.

Caveat: some regions are referred to by a directional name, such as "the West." Context should make clear that what's meant is either the geographic region west of the Mississippi or the culture of the western hemisphere (vs. the eastern). 

Titles of artistic works (except the non-leading prepositions, coordinating conjunctions, and articles [a, an, the])
The Mona Lisa. The Marriage of FigaroTo the Lighthouse. "She Walks in Beauty." Terminator. Waiting for Godot. "You Belong to Me."

Trademarked products
Kleenex. Big Mac. Kindle.

Named events and holidays (same rules as artistic work titles)
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. I notice the titles of books, operas, and movies are italicized, while those of songs and poems are in quotation marks. Is this standard?

    1. Yes, that has been the practice pretty much everywhere. It has to do with the relative size of the creative work. Short stories' titles also go in quotes. If in doubt, check a style manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style.