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Mechanics: Capitalization, Italics, Numbers, Abbreviations

Mechanics: Capitalization, Italics, Numbers, Abbreviations

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches the basics of using capitalization, italics, numbers, and abbreviations.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn about some of the technical, mechanical aspects of writing from capitalization to italics, as well as numbers and abbreviations.

The first mechanical technique we'll look at is capitalization. In English, we use this in a few key places, including with an I, as in, "I have no idea what I'm doing." Notice that both instances of the word "I" are capitalized, not just the one that starts the sentence. This leads me to the next, and most common place we use capitalization, to start a sentence. For example, "She definitely knows what she's doing."

We also use capitalization with every instance of a proper noun. That is, the specific name of a person, place, or thing. For example, "last month, David visited Cincinnati."

We also use capitalization with titles proceeding names, as in this sentence. "This afternoon, Principal Armstrong called my dad." Notice how in this sentence "dad" is not capitalized, because in this case it's not being used as a title. If I had written, "this afternoon, Principal Armstrong called Dad," then I'd have to capitalize both, because here Dad is a title standing in for his name.

We also use capitalization with directions that are names, but not for directions in general. As in this, "I'm from the South, but I'm driving north." We also use it for the names of countries, languages, holidays, days of the week, and months. However, we don't capitalize seasons. For example, "Monday was the official end of summer."

And finally, we use capitalization in all major words and titles, including the first and last word. For example, "my favorite book is The Sound and the Fury." Notice that the "and" and the second "the" in the title are not capitalized, but the first "the" is, because it's at the beginning of the title.

Oh, and one last note about capitalization. It's common for people to use caps lock, or all caps to indicate yelling or emphasis, but this is only acceptable on the internet, and even then, not everywhere. So shouldn't be done in academic writing.

The next mechanical issue we'll cover are italics, those weirdly slanted letters. Italics are often used to serve the same purpose as underlining, but with the advent of computers, italics are generally preferred, and underlining is rarely appropriate. We use italics in a few types of situations, including in some titles, especially titles of books, movies, albums, journals, newspapers, and full websites. For example, "Jay-Z's Black Album will stand the test of time, I'm sure."

It's also sometimes appropriate, depending on the situation, to use italics to indicate a foreign word. Like in this sentence. "She gave me a funny look when I asked for my espresso con panna." And here's the thing about this function of italics, did you notice that I didn't italicize the word "espresso" even though it's just as much an Italian word as con panna? That's because we've adopted espresso into our language. But the tricky part is that this isn't a black or white thing. Some terms sit between foreign and commonplace, and it's ultimately up to the writer to decide whether or not italicising is necessary in any particular situation.

Anyway, the last use we have for italics is to indicate emphasis. For example, "Let us not forget, my client met the victim only after the supposed crime was committed." The thing about using italics, especially for emphasis, is that it's important not to overuse them. Use them too often and they'll cease to have any meaning. Also, they can be distracting and even annoying to the reader.

Though they're often overlooked, there are, in fact, rules for writing numbers. We should spell out numbers smaller than 10, and use numerals for numbers higher than 10. And if a sentence begins with a number, always spell it out or rewrite the sentence so the number doesn't come at the very beginning. And the thing is, these rules aren't hard and fast, so as writers, we're obliged to follow whatever method as required by our particular writing project or genre.

And the most important rule is to be consistent. Since in most cases the expectations for writing or not writing out numbers won't be stated very clearly, it's usually up to the writer to decide what he or she wants to do. So once you do that, follow through and don't, for example, spell out the number 15 and then use numerals for 13 a half page later. You might not think readers will notice, but some will. I guarantee it.

The last technical parts of writing that we'll look at today are abbreviations. Writers get into trouble with these because, much like the numbers we just discussed, the rules about their use tend to be assumed rather than stated directly. Different formatting styles have different rules for abbreviation, so writers, especially student writers, should find out what format a particular teacher or course requires and follow that. But in general, abbreviations shouldn't be used in academic writing. So when in doubt, spell it out.

There are, however, a few key exceptions, including when the abbreviation has its own dictionary definition or is otherwise commonly known. Things like the FBI or IQ tests or this sentence. "I want to work at the IRS, but I'm no good at math." it's also acceptable to use abbreviations when the full phrase has already been introduced, as in the sentence. "The Irish Republican Army, or IRA, was most active during the late 1960s."

And it's OK to use Latin abbreviations or reference abbreviations. Like this, "the sources, i.e. Holmes, Catalino et al., were used throughout the text." This isn't the greatest sentence, and I don't recommend you ever used two abbreviations in one sentence, but for demonstration purposes, I couldn't resist it.

So what did we learn today? We learned about some of the most important mechanical aspects of language, from when and how to use capitalization and italics to the rules governing spelling and not spelling out numbers to acceptable uses of abbreviations. We've got it covered. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.