German is an awesome language. Especially when it comes to capital letters. The rules are simple:
- If it is a noun, capitalise it.
- If it is a pronoun and you are being polite, capitalise it.
- If it is the start of a sentence, a title or the start of a quote, capitalise it.
English is a whole different kettle of fish. And when it comes to the rules for using capital letters, these fish are mighty confused.
In this blog, I try to shine some light on the murky waters of when to use capital letters in English, including when to use capital letters in geographical locations – valleys, mountains, rivers and the like.
(I have just translated the website for a German tourist association and these issues came up a lot!)
When do I need to use a capital letter in English?
There are some basic rules for using capital letters in English, so let’s get these out of the way first.
Rules for using capital letters in English:
- Start every sentence with a capital letter;
- Proper nouns are capitalised, regardless of where they turn up in the sentence. Proper nouns refer to specific people, places, things and ideas. They include people’s names, towns, countries, brand names, planets, the names of specific buildings, organisations, days of the week, months etc.
- Capital letters are commonly used in the titles of books and films, as well as in titles of blog posts. When you capitalise titles, standard practice is to capitalise the main words but not the connecting words (like the, and, or, of etc. unless they are at the start of the title, of course), e.g. How to Stop Time or Back to the Future;
- Acronyms are generally capitalised, as in NATO, BBC, CEO, UN, MP etc.
Well that all seems jolly straight forward. What’s the problem? I hear you ask. Well, allow me to introduce you to the topic of…
Capital letters in geographical locations
I love translating websites for tourism associations, hotels, tourist attractions and the like. I love learning about different parts of Germany and imagining travelling to the places that I write about. Recent highlights from my latest translation include a “bakery” sauna where you bake bread whilst you relax. Imagine how amazing it must be to sit in a lovely, warm sauna full of the smell of freshly baking bread. Then there was the glamping in a shepherd’s wagon in the heart of a Dark Sky Park. But this shepherd’s wagon is not just any shepherd’s wagon – it has a glass roof above the bed, so you can literally lie in bed and gaze at the stars. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?
Anyway, I digress. The disadvantage of translating all of these lovely texts for the tourism industry is that they are full of references to places and geographical locations and, as a result, full of quandaries for the English translator. It is all very well drawing the line between common nouns and proper nouns in principle, but put it into practice and you may soon find yourself losing your sanity, or what little sanity you had to begin with…
Here are some examples of the fun that I had in this translation:
Lahntal = the Lahn Valley or the Lahn valley?
Neckar = the River Neckar but is it also the Neckar River, or the Neckar river?
der Hoher Meißner = the Hoher Meißner Mountain or the Hoher Meißner mountain
Then there are the gorges, the streams, the hills, the rocks… The list goes on.
You see, the thing is, in these examples it is really rather difficult to decide whether the geographical term (valley, river, mountain etc.) is a proper noun or a common noun. Normally, these terms are all common nouns, but in these instances, do they become proper nouns because they refer to specific places?
I concluded the following:
- the Lahn Valley because the name of the place is the Lahn Valley, not the Lahn that happens to be a valley. (Lahn is the name of the river)
- the River Neckar but the Neckar river
- the Hoher Meißner mountain, because the name of the mountain is the Hoher Meißner and it is a mountain.
Does that make sense? Do you agree? Are there other examples of this kind that are making your brain hurt? There is a thread on this on our Facebook page – why not pop over and join the discussion?
Want to write better English? Download our FREE guide to English grammar!
Should I capitalise job titles?
Another common cause of confusion in English regarding capital letters is job titles. For example, should we write Managing Director or managing director? The first thing to note here is that professions are never capitalised. Writing something like “My daughter’s Teacher is brilliant at teaching science” is just plain wrong. Similarly, “He is doing a really poor job of being president” is correct (on a number of levels).
We do, however, capitalise job titles in certain instances. President should be capitalised when talking about a specific president: “We all really miss President Obama”. The same applies to other job titles when they directly precede the person’s name. This means that “Managing Director Julie Smith is a brilliant managing director” is entirely correct; however, “Managing Director, Julie Smith” is wrong.
One final thing to note, is that if the job title is referring to a specific person, it is also capitalised: “The Prime Minister needs to call a general election.” This is because the Prime Minister is always referring to the same person – it is not just a generic job title. The same applies when we are talking about the Queen.
I hope that clears things up a bit and you are not now totally confused. If you are, try downloading our free, quick-reference guide to English grammar, for more information about capital letters, as well as apostrophes, semicolons, bullet points and more. Alternatively, pop over to the LEaF Translations Facebook page and we will do our best to help you out!
For more fascinating grammar tips and tricks, check out the other blogs from the Grammaticals series, including: The Art of the Apostrophe, Made of OR Made from? and “Put a sock in it” and 10 other great English idioms.