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Capital letters

Why capitalise?

Use capitals sparingly. Capital letters change the ‘shape’ of words and can interrupt the reading process when they are used too often. The reverse is also true: a lower-case letter in a word that usually has a capital can also cause a momentary interruption to our reading.

A capital letter does not mean that something is important. Words, and the way they are put together, can convey powerful messages by themselves. A page, label or sign bristling with capital letters looks messy and distracts and discourages readers.

Capital letters have two main roles:

  • to show the beginning of a sentence
  • to show proper nouns.

As a general rule, if you are uncertain about using a capital, don’t.

Names

People

The names of people, both real and fictitious, are capitalised:

Noel Pearson Harvey Krumpet
Margaret Pomeranz Darth Vader
Ned Kelly Tim Winton

Foreign names and words

Use the form of the name preferred by the person. Do not anglicise names unless they otherwise cannot be written. Keep the accents in foreign names, and consult the Macquarie Dictionary for the accepted spelling of anglicised foreign names such as Mao Zedong.

For family names with particles – such as della, von and de la – see the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers.

When a personal name becomes a general word in the language it usually loses its capital after a time:

diesel, furphy, sandwich

Many words that were once proper nouns have come to be regarded as ordinary words. In some of these the initial capital has been retained; in others it has been changed to lower case:

bunsen burner johnny cake
Gladstone bag quisling
Homeric rugby
Johne’s disease sadism

Check the Macquarie Dictionary if you are unsure.

Nicknames and epithets

Nicknames and epithets are capitalised:

Pig Iron Bob, the Silver Bodgie, the Singing Budgie

Personifications

An abstract idea given a specific identity is capitalised:

Oh, Fortune, lead us home.

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Nationality, ethnic origin, tribe, language and religion

Initial capitals are used for:

  • nationalities and inhabitants of a particular city – Spanish, Canberrans. Note: when a national or geographical name is used in an expression that has a specialised meaning, no initial capital is used – to go dutch, french windows, venetian blinds, roman type
  • ethnic origin – Indo-European, Melanesian, Bushmen, Marsh Arab, Makasar. Note: general descriptions of origin are not capitalised – black, white, highlander
  • cultural or tribal identity – Warlpiri, Navajo
  • languages – Latin, Pitjantjatjara, Creole, Swahili
  • religions and religious groups – Islam, Shinto, Buddhist, Mormon, Methodist.

See also First Australians

Calendar

The names of days and months take an initial capital – for example Monday, and January; as do the standard shortened forms for month:

JanFebMarAprMayJune
JulyAugSeptOctNovDec

Holidays, holy periods and public events

These names take an initial capital:

Anzac Day Diwali  the Queen’s Birthday
Australia Day Mother’s Day Ramadan
Ash Wednesday the Melbourne Cup Yom Kippur
Christmas Day the Olympic Games

Seasons

In contrast, the seasons are usually lower-cased:

spring, the winter solstice

Historical events and periods

In expressions denoting historical events and periods, the name – but not the preceding definite article – receives initial capitals:

use rather than
First World War World War One or World War I
Second World War World War Two or World War II
the Eureka Stockade  
the Gulf War  
the French Revolution  
the Depression  

Prefixes such as post-, pre- and neo- are sometimes capitalised:

pre-Christian but Pre-Raphaelite

A shortened reference is usually not capitalised:

the Great Exhibition becomes the exhibition

Initial capitals are usually not used for cultural designations of a generic kind:

the baroque periodmedieval
the renaissancepostmodern
gothic novelsimpressionist painters

If the expression contains an adjective derived from a personal name, however, the initial capital is sometimes retained:

a Georgian house, Shakespearian verse, Victorian plumbing

Treaties and other agreements

The names of treaties, conventions and other kinds of agreements are capitalised:

the ANZUS Treaty the Berlin Mandate
the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change the Kyoto Protocol
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 1974  

Lower case is used for incomplete and plural references:

Very few nations refused to sign the protocol.

The convention was ratified in 1997.

the treaties of Versailles and Locarno

Conferences and congresses

Capitalise the titles of conferences and congresses when referring to them in full:

the Congress of Vienna

the Bretton Woods Conference

Incomplete and plural references do not need to be capitalised:

The congresses of Berlin and Vienna …

At the conference …

Research projects and grants

Use minimal capitalisation and single quotation marks:

The Museum continued the joint project ‘The human elements: A cultural history of Australian weather’.

‘Migration memories’ is a three-year Australian Research Council linkage project.

Australian Government

The full title of Australia’s national government is the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The word ‘Commonwealth’ is often associated with the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Empire) and it should be avoided, as should 'federal’, which is also an unfamiliar term for many people. Use 'Australian' instead:

the Australian Government, the Australian Parliament

These terms do not need to be capitalised:

the government, parliament, successive governments, the state government, parliament, state parliament, the Howard government

Full titles of state and territory governments are capitalised:

the Northern Territory Government, the South Australian Government

Prime Minister

For address lines use these formulations:

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, opened …

Prime Minister Turnbull …

In text, use:

The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, spoke …

Prime Minister Turnbull spoke …

Generic or abbreviated references to the current Australian Prime Minister are always capitalised. References to former Australian prime ministers are not.

Arts ministry

In 2017 the Australian Government ministry responsible for the arts is the Department of Communication and the Arts. The minister is Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield, Minister for the Arts.

Use lower case for shortened and generic titles:

the ministry, the minister, the arts minister or ministry, the federal arts minister or ministry

Organisations

When the full, official name is cited, all words other than articles, prepositions and conjunctions are given an initial capital. When the name is used in its generic form no initial capital is necessary:

full name generic name
the Australian National University the university
the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade the department
the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health the centre
the National Library of Australia the library

Note that the generic form of the National Museum of Australia always takes a capital letter:

the Museum

If a generic reference might cause confusion use the full title.

For clarity, it is conventional to capitalise these terms:

the Bar the Full Bench the Treasury
the Bench the Crown

Formal titles and designations

When a title designating a position is given in full – whether or not it is accompanied by the person’s name – all words other than articles, prepositions and conjunctions are given an initial capital:

the Archbishop of Sydney the Prime Minister of Australia
the Chief Justice of the High Court Her Majesty
the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
the Governor-General Queen Elizabeth
the Lord Mayor of Melbourne the Queen of the Netherlands
the Minister for the Arts the Queen
the Deputy Director, Programs and Engagement the Director of the National Museum of Australia

In general, initial capitals are not used in abbreviated references:

We saw the archbishop.

the lord mayor

the minister

the premier

the director

Exceptions are the titles of the current incumbents of the positions of the Australian monarch, foreign heads of state, the Prime Minister and Treasurer. All are capitalised even when the titles are truncated or used generically:

The Queen will be visiting the Museum next week.

the Prime Minister of Australia … the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has announced that … the Prime Minister

The Treasurer will announce the new arrangements tomorrow.

the President of the United States of America … President Obama announced that … the President

Such titles are also capitalised when used as the prefix to a name:

Chief Minister Gallagher, Prime Minister Gillard

When reference is made simply to the office, or an abbreviated form is used, no capitals are needed:

When Hughes was prime minister

Lower case is also used for plural references:

the kings and queens of England

all the attorneys-general

Geographical terms

Place names

Initial capitals are used for place names:

  • Continents – Australia, Africa, Gondwana, Pangaea
  • Countries – Papua New Guinea, Vietnam
  • States, provinces and counties – South Australia, Saskatchewan, Cumbria, Umbria
  • Conventional names of regions – Central Australia, the Adelaide Hills, the Monaro, East Gippsland, the Kimberley, the Top End, Far North Queensland, the Southern Hemisphere
  • Recognised geopolitical regions – South-East Asia, North America, Western Europe, Saharan Africa. In contrast, lower case is used for geographical descriptions – the central business district, the southern suburbs, the inner south, northern Queensland, south-west Western Australia
  • Cities, towns and suburbs – Bathurst, Canberra, Civic, Yarralumla
  • Streets, highways, freeways, and so on – Franklin Street, Northbourne Avenue, the Tuggeranong Parkway, the Barton Highway
  • Topographical features – the Brindabellas, Lake Eyre, the Bellarine Peninsula. Note: when the name is shortened no capitals are necessary – the mountains, the lake, the peninsula. The same applies when two or more features are brought together in the same expression – the Murray and Darling rivers

Fictitious place names also take an initial capital:

Ruritania, Brobdingnag

Buildings and other places

Names of buildings and specific places are capitalised:

the Big Mango Ainslie Primary School
Llewellyn Hall Glebe Park
the Lodge Kings Avenue Bridge
the Australian War Memorial  

When they are abbreviated the generic element is lower-cased:

at the town hall

Compass directions

Ordinary expressions of direction are not capitalised, but the abbreviations for points of the compass are:

north, south-west, east-north-east

but

N, SW, ENE

Latitude and longitude

Capitalise:

the Equator, the Tropic of Cancer, the Tropic of Capricorn, the International Date Line

Express degrees of latitude and longitude thus:

175°E

23°S

Scientific names

Common or scientific names?

The decision to use scientific names or common names, or both, depends on the nature of the document or exhibit and the audience. In most cases it is preferable to state the common name first and then follow that with the scientific name in parentheses:

Neptune’s necklace (Hormosira banksii) is a seaweed commonly found on rocky shores.

In some cases common names are not available or used, and readers and the public might be accustomed to the use of scientific names – for example, ancient plants and animals such as archaeopteryx and glossopteris. In other cases the scientific name will be unimportant. In general, use common names if they are widely known, and give the scientific names at the first mention if necessary.

If no common name is available – as is the case with many invertebrates and cryptogams – a generic common name based on the family name or genus name can be constructed but is not essential. Do not capitalise such a name: it is not a true common name.

Capitalising common names

Use lower case for common names and English derivatives of generic and other names:

amoeba, eucalyptus, influenza, mammal, streptococcus

Common names are usually capitalised only if they contain proper names:

red-back spider but Bennett’s wallaby

blue-winged kookaburra

spotted nightjar

Norfolk Island pine

Common breeds of animals generally do not take an initial capital, even if they also refer to a geographical area – for example, labrador, siamese cat, friesian.

Do not capitalise collective names – eagles, tree kangaroos, orchids, whales, acacias (including generic names used when a common name is not available). This helps to obviate possible misunderstanding about whether you are referring to a particular species, several related species, or an unnamed species.

Do not capitalise names used in a simple culinary or crop sense – cauliflower, carrot, parsley, chives, starfruit, cotton, hemp, canola.

Astronomy

The names of the planets, individual asteroids, planetary moons and comets are capitalised.

Generally speaking, sun, moon and earth should be capitalised only when mentioned together with other planets.

The Sun is closer to Venus than to Earth.

but

His moods are affected by the phases of the moon.

Use capitals for ‘earth’ in cases where it may lead to confusion between the planet and the ground.

When referring to our galaxy, use the Galaxy or the Milky Way, depending on the context.

Capitalise ‘Universe’ when using the word in a specific sense, but not when talking of other (theoretical) universes.

Capitalise named features on other planets (for example, Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Tranquillity, the Great Red Spot, Mons Olympus) but craters only partially (crater Tycho, crater 1321).

When an astronomical name consists of both a particular and a generic component, the latter does not need to be capitalised.

the Crab nebula, Halley’s comet

There is no need to capitalise ‘solar system’.

Commercial terms

Company names

Company and proprietary names take an initial capital on each main word. The names should be spelt as they are spelt by the companies themselves, even if the spelling does not conform to standard usage:

Walk-thru Wardrobes, Metcash Trading, General Motors-Holden’s, Jetstar

It is preferable to provide the full, formal title in the first instance. After that, it is not necessary to repeat terms such as Inc., Pty Ltd and Ltd:

National Foods Ltd becomes National Foods

If a company always spells its name without an initial capital letter, in text it should be written as you would any normal proper name – that is, with an initial capital:

eclarté becomes Eclarté

Some company names have a medial capital – for example, PowerTel. Leave the capital as it is.

Ampersands and other symbols used in company titles should be retained.

Angus & Robertson, Schamburg + Alvisse, Allen & Unwin

For names used in the past, check old government directories such as the Victorian Government Gazette.

In general, if a company uses capitals for all the letters in its name, present the name with an initial capital only:

Civic Financial Planning rather than CIVIC FINANCIAL PLANNING

The exception to this occurs when the name the company itself uses is a shortened form:

AMP rather than Australian Mutual Provident Society

Most organisations with long names have preferred abbreviations. If you are not sure of the correct one, ask the organisation or check one of its publications. Be careful, however, not to confuse a shortened form in a logo with the company’s official or preferred title.

Trademarks, brand names and proprietary names

Registered trademarks and trade names should have an initial capital. Avoid using them as generic terms:

use rather than
ballpoint pen Biro
sticky tape Sellotape
tissue Kleenex
vacuum Hoover

Remember, though, that many names that were originally trade names are now (or are also) generic:

Band-Aid → a band-aid solution

but

Rolls Royce → the Rolls Royce of can openers

Similarly, ‘celluloid’, ‘linotype’ and ‘thermos’ are in fact trademarks but with time have come to be used in generic form.

Always consult the Macquarie Dictionary.

Computer terms

Many computer software and hardware names take initial capitals or are presented in full capitals or have a medial capital:

InDesign IBM
iPhone 7 Microsoft Word
Samsung Galaxy World Wide Web

Other terms are not capitalised:

database email hardware software
disk drive floppy disk online website
disk operating system hard diskinternet

Elements of a book or article

References to chapters, sections, appendixes, tables and figures in a book and to sections, tables and figures in an article should have an initial capital:

See Section 3.1.

Appendix A

Table 6.2

Figure 9

More in Punctuation

References to other elements of a book are usually lower-cased:

foreword glossary
preface bibliography
contents index
introduction  

Books of the Bible

Books, chapters and verses of the Bible are presented like this:

the Acts of the Apostles

Psalm 23:6–8

the Book of Job

1 Corinthians 12