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Proper use of capital letters is part of the big picture

September 22, 2006|by LISA PREJEAN

Every sentence begins with one of these. Without them, nothing would be proper. Everything would be common. If these are overused, a reader might feel that the writer is SHOUTING at him.

Obviously, I'm referring to capital letters.

We all use capital letters every day. Each time we write our names, address, insurance company name or other frequently required information, those uppercase letters help to set apart words that are specific.

I like the study of capitalization because it teaches the importance of details, and details make up the bigger picture.

It seems that most elementary English books include a chapter on capitalization, with good reason. Children - and sometimes adults - seem unsure about which words need to be capitalized in a sentence.

What words need capital letters? Take this basic quiz.

Circle the letters that should be capitalized in the following paragraph:

today was a beautiful autumn day. we went to city park to hear the municipal band play some sousa marches. my mother and i decided to buy some dinner at the food stand. since it was sunday, we wanted to relax. we talked about our plans for thanksgiving and christmas. discussing the holidays reminded us of the services held each year at church. we wondered what the scripture lesson would be and if the pastor would have us read responsively from the bible. about that time, the band started playing "stars and stripes forever." we couldn't help waving the american flags that we had brought for this patriotic occasion. i suddenly was very proud to be an american citizen. as the song ended and the concert was over, i saw my physician, dr. e.g. smith, walking toward me. he smiled at me. with a chuckle, i inquired about his health. he said he felt like "the little engine that could." as long as he repeats, "i think i can, i think i can," he feels fine. i thought that was good advice and decided to follow it when my work week began on monday.

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Now, count your circles. How many letters did you mark? If you have 48 circles, good for you. You are a capitalization ace. If you have 35 or more, you are doing well. Those with less than 35 probably should brush up on the rules of capitalization.

Let's look at each sentence separately.

Today was a beautiful autumn day. (The first word of all these sentences should be capitalized because every sentence begins with a capital letter. If you capitalized autumn, consider that a common mistake. Many people think seasons of the year should be capitalized because months of the year are capitalized.)

We went to City Park to hear the Municipal Band play some Sousa marches. (specific places, band names and names of composers)

My mother and I decided to buy some dinner at the food stand. (The pronoun I is always capitalized. Mother is not capitalized here because it is not used in place of her name. You wouldn't say, "My Doris and I ...." You would capitalize mother if it was used in place of her name: Will you go to the store with Mother and Dad?)

Since it was Sunday, we wanted to relax. (days of the week)

We talked about our plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (holidays)

Discussing the holidays reminded us of the services held each year at church. We wondered what the Scripture lesson would be and if the pastor would have us read responsively from the Bible. (References to the Bible should be capitalized.)

About that time, the band started playing "Stars and Stripes Forever." (titles of songs)

We couldn't help waving the American flags that we had brought for this patriotic occasion. I suddenly was very proud to be an American citizen. (countries, nationalities)

As the song ended and the concert was over, I saw my physician, Dr. E.G. Smith, walking toward me. (titles, initials)

He smiled at me. With a chuckle, I inquired about his health. He said he felt like "The Little Engine That Could." (book titles)

As long as he repeats, "I think I can, I think I can," he feels fine. I thought that was good advice and decided to follow it when my workweek began on Monday. (days of the week)

Challenge your children to be capital letter detectives. Where should capitals be placed? Where should they be removed? Happy hunting!

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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