Capitalise the first word of a sentence; usually the first word of dialogue; and, of course, for proper nouns. You do not normally capitalise after a colon. You capitalise words when used as a form of address. Compare:
- ‘I will tell Dad about his.’
- ‘My dad likes coffee.’
Sometimes there is confusion whether a word should be capitalised or not. For example, should it be “earth” or “Earth”. And when do you capitalise a person’s rank or title?
Earth is capitalised when it is a proper noun, viz: The spaceliner travelled from Earth to Mars.
Earth is lower case if it is used as a common noun. Thus: The earth orbits the sun once a year.
Honorific titles are capitalised, thus: The Queen, His Excellency, Eminence, etc, and used for forms of address and proper names. You capitalise when using a synonym for that person eg: The Princess, or the Duke.
Titles applied to a person are also capitalised, thus: Captain Plave. But when referring to the position: the captain. In other words, you do not capitalise when in the third person.
Do not capitalise a title if it is used instead of the name: The captain strode across the deck. He asked the matron for her opinion.
Also, use lower case when used after the name. Thus: Fred Smith, the cardinal; also, incidentally, the cardinal, Fred Smith.
However, when in direct address, you should capitalise: ‘Excuse me, Captain, the purser would like to see you.’; ‘Very well, Matron, I will come down to the ward as soon as I can.’
Sir and madam are capitalized:
- when beginning a letter or email
- as an honorific coming before a name, Sir William Wilberforce.
Otherwise “sir” (and madam) are lower case in cases other than starting correspondence or as an honorific before a name. This mostly concerns authors who are writing dialogue in creative writing. Thus:
- “Please sir, may I have some more grub?” the boy asked hungrily.
- “It was a pleasure to meet you, madam,” the gentleman said.
Author’s note: I don’t like capitalisations all over the place; they tend to interfere with the way a reader scans the text. I will always capitalise a full title: Captain Gallan Plave operated his console. But in dialogue, in the absence of the person’s name, I prefer to stick with lower case: ‘Aye, aye, captain!’
By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon Burning and The Wild Sands of Rotar
Last updated: Monday, 13th January 2020