In English every sentence starts with a Capital Letter (or Uppercase) and usually ends with a period or full stop.
For example these are all wrong:
* the film has finished.
* where is she?
* in 1492 Columbus sailed off into the sunset.
* an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence shows it is ungrammatical or wrong in some way
These should all begin with a capital thus:
The film has finished.
Where is she?
In 1492 Columbus sailed off into the sunset.
Aside from this, the main use of a capital letter in English is with the pronoun, I:
John wanted to come but I said no.
Can I have some money please?
These, then, are the two main uses of capitalization in English: at the beginning of sentences and with the pronoun, I.
There is a fuller list below but first let’s look at teaching capitals in the TEFL classroom and the kind of problems you might face.
Teaching Capital Letters
In the TEFL classroom when they first arise, it’s as well to teach these two main uses of capital letters. They aren’t difficult to learn and certainly most students will be familiar with the idea of starting a sentence with an uppercase letter.
Some students will need reminding of the use of I but again, it’s not often a major problem for students.
Most other languages have different rules for capitalization so you should be aware of what happens where you teach. Knowing these rules will help you identify why your students might make a mistake in their capitalization and help you prepare an activity or two on helping them with differences between English and their mother tongue:
- German capitalizes every noun and students with German MT will need to be made aware of the difference.
- French does not capitalize many of the things English does, e.g. days, months, locations, quotes, languages, nationalities or religions, etc. (see below)
- These languages do not have letter case: Arabic, Hangul, Hebrew, Georgian, Kannada, & Tamil.
- Italian only capitalizes the first word in a title and not all significant words in a title.
Other Capitalization in English
We also use capital letters in the middle of sentences for certain words and in certain situations. It should be remembered, however, that different style guides have different advice and you will occasionally find variations from this list.
the name of a day or a month
I’ll see you on Tuesday.
My favorite month of all is April.
the name of a language
We all teach English.
I am learning Arabic right now.
the name of a nationality or an ethnic group
She is Italian.
There are several Asian students in my class.
proper names (including brand names)
I gave Eva a ride home last night.
I bought the new Apple iPhone and it bends!
Note the slightly unusual capitalization of iPhone which has been done to make the name stand out; it doesn’t, however, follow the usual English rules of capitalization
the name of an historical period
We suspect this area was first settled during the Iron Age.
There was great upheaval during the Industrial Revolution.
the name of a holiday
When is Easter this year?
What are you wearing for Halloween?
a significant religious term
Are you a Buddhist?
I’ve read the Quran, but not the Bible.
the first word, and each significant word, of a title
Have you seen “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”?
I believe Sir General John Hackett was born here.
the first word of a quotation or reported speech
Ghandi used to say, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
She said, “If you leave now, I’ll never speak to you again.”
The Sun and the Moon, Mercury and Venus…
Pope John Paul II was born here.
In the XIII Century.
The United Nations Capitalization Style Guide – a guide to capitalization as issued by the United Nations
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