When to use capital letters in business writing

Happy New Year!

Or is it happy new year?

Deciding whether to use initial capital letters in business writing is not as clear cut as you might think. Here’s my handy guide on when to use capital letters, when to avoid them, and what to do when you’re not sure.

Always use a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence:

✔ The cat sat on the mat. The dog sat on the log.

✘ the cat sat on the mat. the dog sat on the log.

Always use an initial capital for proper nouns (names of people, places, organisations and trademarked brands):

✔ Lisa bought some Lego from Tesco in Warwick.

✘ lisa bought some lego from tesco in warwick.

Always use a capital letter for the pronoun I:

✔ It’s time I was going home.

✘ It’s time i was going home.

Always use an initial capital for days of the week and months of the year:

✔ Would you like to come over for dinner one Saturday in May?

✘ Would you like to come over for dinner one saturday in may?

But most style guides will steer you away from using an initial capital for seasons:

✔ I love the colours of the trees in autumn.

✘ I love the colours of the trees in Autumn.

Overuse of capitals can distract the reader and take attention away from your key messages:

✔ The fireworks display will be held on Sunday evening at the local primary school. There will be hot dogs and glow sticks on sale.

✘ The Fireworks Display will be held on Sunday evening at the local Primary School. There will be Hot Dogs and Glow Sticks on sale.

Writing fully in capitals makes you look like you are shouting and it can look overly aggressive to the reader. It can also be harder to read. Try using the odd bit of bold or a different colour if you need to emphasise something:

✔ You must hand your forms in by Thursday 12th April.

✘ YOU MUST HAND YOUR FORMS IN BY THURSDAY 12TH APRIL.

Capitalisation of job titles can tie people in knots. If you write about the Director of the Organisation do you also write about the Cleaner of the Office or the Teacher at the School? Don’t offend anyone by implying that some are more important than others. Newspaper style guides usually opt for all job titles being in lower case:

✔ Joe Bloggs, the police and crime commissioner for Peopleshire, was delighted with the plans.

✘ Joe Bloggs, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Peopleshire, was delighted with the plans.

Capitalisation in titles and headings is a style choice. Always use an initial capital for the first word and of course any proper nouns, following the guidelines above. For the rest, you can decide whether to use sentence case or title case:

✔ Sentence case has just the first word with an initial capital

✔ Title Case has Initial Capitals for Major Words

Neither need a full stop when it is a heading or title. Just make sure you are consistent, using the same case and styling for all headings that sit at the same level.

Where capitalisation is a style choice rather than a necessity and you don’t have a style guide to work from, you can set your own rules. Consistency is the most important thing to aim for here, so jot your rules down and refer back to them when you are checking your text.

So is it Happy New Year or happy new year?

Well that one’s a matter of choice.

The Guardian and Observer Style Guide and the BBC News Style Guide have new year in lowercase, but the specific dates of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day with initial capitals.

Collins English Dictionary suggests New Year for British English and new year for American English.

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries cites both the capitalised and lowercase options.

Personally, I have a tendency towards capitalisation when I’m referring to it as a celebration or event, but lowercase when just talking about something happening in the new year.

Happy New Year and happy writing!

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