Capital Letters at the Start of Sentences, Mid-sentence, and after Colons

by Craig Shrives

A Capital Letter to Start a Sentence

Start every new sentence with a capital letter. This seems like a simple ruling, but there are some quirks.

Capital Letters after Colons, Dashes, or Semicolons

When a sentence is divided by a dash, a semicolon, or a colon, you will often have two "sentences" either side of it. In fact, these are not two sentences but two independent clauses. Only the first one (i.e., the one that starts the sentence) gets a capital letter. For example:
  • In this world there are only two tragedies: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
  • (Note that there is no capital letter on "one.")
  • Never pick a fight with an ugly person; they've got nothing to lose.
  • She demanded effort from her students — that's all she ever asked for.

More about Capital Letters after Colons

With a colon, if the introduction is short and the words that follow the colon are the main idea and a standalone sentence, then you can use a capital letter. For example:
  • Our motto: Live every day to the fullest – in moderation. (Actress Lindsay Lohan)
  • I have made an important discovery: Alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, produces all the effects of intoxication. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
  • (This Oscar Wilde example is similar to the Oscar Wilde example above. However, with this one, the capital "A" gives second half more emphasis, making it more like a punchline. This example could have been written with a lowercase "a" too.)
There is notable leniency on this. If you feel a capital letter is right, use it. If you think it looks awkward, go for a lowercase letter.

However, you must use a capital letter if the text after the colon is two or more sentences. For example:
  • There are two reasons why we don't trust people: First, we don't know them. Second, we do know them. (Anon)
  • (The capital letter is required on the first sentence after the colon to ensure it is equal to the second sentence.)
capital letter to start a sentence after a colon


Of course, if the first word should have a capital letter in its own right (e.g., it's a proper noun (e.g., London, George Harrison, Wal-Mart) or an abbreviation, e.g., CNN, BBC, Nato, then obviously it keeps its capital letter.

Capital Letters within Quotation Marks

If your sentence includes a verb of attribution (e.g., "he said," "she argues," "they whispered," "I shouted") followed by a quotation that is a standalone sentence, start the quotation with a capital letter. For example:
  • At 4 o'clock, he stood up and said the following: "You can all leave if you wish."
  • The guides always gave the same advice: "Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone."
  • It's hard to disagree with Frank Zappa, who said: "Art is making something out of nothing and selling it."
However, if your quotation is mid-sentence and not a standalone sentence, do not use a capital letter.
  • He was considered "the sexiest man ever to come out of Birmingham."
  • (Here, the quotation is a not a standalone sentence.)
There is another consideration. If the original version of "the sexiest man ever to come out of Birmingham" started with a capital letter, then a capital "T" could have been used in the last example above. There is a lot of leniency on the use of capital letters for quotations embedded in sentences. You are safe to let your desired flow of text and how your sentence looks determine whether to use a capital or lowercase letter.

Read more about using colons and commas before quotations.

A Sentence in Parentheses within another Sentence

When a sentence in parentheses (brackets) appears inside another sentence, the most common convention is to start the sentence with a capital letter but not give it a period (full stop). For example:
  • I sailed with Janet to the seal colony (She had studied these seals for two years) to check if our great white had returned.
  • My day was dragging (It was like a day on Venus) due to the boredom.
If the integral sentence is an exclamatory sentence or a question, then it is normal to include the exclamation mark or the question mark.

(Related Point) Avoiding the Run-On Error

Once you have expressed a complete idea, you must put a period and end the sentence. Do not insert a comma and continue writing. This is a common mistake called a run-on error, a comma fault, or a run-on sentence. For example:
  • I'm not insulting you, I'm describing you.
  • Cannibals don't eat clowns, they taste funny.
  • Never pick a fight with an ugly person, they've got nothing to lose.
  • The Loch Ness Monster was spotted 8 times in the 1960s, I camped there for a year and did not see a thing.
Read more about run-on errors.

(Related Point) Extending Sentences with Dashes and Semicolons

Occasionally, it may be appropriate to use a dash or a semicolon to extend a sentence. For example:
  • Cannibals don't eat clowns — they taste funny.
  • Never pick a fight with an ugly person; they've got nothing to lose.
Read more about extending sentences with dashes and semicolons.

(Related Point) Starting Sentences with "However"

The word "however" usually starts a new sentence. It is a common mistake to merge sentences using a comma and "however." For example:
  • I am leaving on Tuesday, however, I will be back on Wednesday to collect my wages.
  • I am leaving on Tuesday. However, I will be back on Wednesday to collect my wages.
Here is another example:
  • Do not feed the fish in this tank, however, you may feed the animals in the petting zoo.
  • The centre forward is fast. However, he can only kick the ball with his left foot.
Occasionally, it may be appropriate to use a semicolon before "however."

Read more about using a semicolon before "however.".
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Capital letters in advertisements Capital letters and the points of the compass Using capital letters with proper and common nouns Capital letters with the four seasons What is title case? Test on using capital letters