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Mechanics: Capitalization, Italics, Numbers, Abbreviations

Mechanics: Capitalization, Italics, Numbers, Abbreviations

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Recognize the correct use of capitalization, italics, numbers, and abbreviations in academic writing.

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what's covered
This tutorial addresses some of the mechanical aspects of writing: capitalization, italics, numbers and abbreviations:

  1. Capitalization
  2. Italics
  3. Numbers
  4. Abbreviations

1. Capitalization

Capitalization is used in the following situations:

  • all occurrences of the word "I". In the sentence below, both instances of "I" are capitalized, not just the one that begins the sentence.
I have no idea what I'm doing.
  • At the start of a sentence (Note: This is the most common place to use capitalization.)
She definitely knows what she's doing.
  • With proper nouns (the specific name of a person, place, or thing)
Last month, David visited Cincinnati.
  • With titles proceeding names
This afternoon, Principal Armstrong called my dad.

Note that in the last sentence "dad" is not capitalized, because it is not used as a title. If the sentence was written as follows, both "Principal Armstrong" and "Dad" would be capitalized, because "Dad" is a title that replaces the name of the narrator's father.

This afternoon, Principal Armstrong called Dad.
  • With directions that are names, but not for directions in general
I'm from the South, but I'm driving north.
  • Names of countries, languages, holidays, days of the week, and months. However, the names of the seasons are not capitalized.
Monday was the official end of summer.
  • In all major words and titles, including the first and last word. In the following sentence, the "and" and the second "the" in the title are not capitalized, but the first "the" is, because it is the beginning of the title.
My favorite book is "The Sound and the Fury."

did you know
Some writers write words or phrases in all caps to emphasize them. This usage is only acceptable in some internet-based writing (e.g., social media posts). All caps should not be used in academic writing.

2. Italics

Italics sometimes serve the same purpose as underlining, but since the advent of computer-based writing, the use of italics has been preferred. Currently, underlining is rarely appropriate. Italics are used in certain circumstances, including some titles, especially titles of books, movies, musical works, journals, newspapers, and websites. Here's an example:

I'm sure that Jay-Z's Black Album will stand the test of time.

Italics are also sometimes used to indicate a foreign word, as in this sentence:

She gave me a funny look when I asked for my espresso con panna.

think about it
Did you notice that "espresso" isn't italicized, even though it's an Italian word like those used in the phrase con panna? That's because, as a result of frequent use, espresso has been incorporated into the English language. However, some words fall into a "gray" area between "foreign" and "adopted into English." It's up to the writer to decide whether or not to italicize a particular word or phrase.

Italics is also used to indicate emphasis, as in this example:

Let us not forget, my client met the victim only after the supposed crime was committed.

When using italics, especially for emphasis, it's important to avoid overuse. As with all punctuation, too-frequent use reduces meaning and increases distraction — and even annoyance — for readers.

3. Numbers

Though they're overlooked by some writers, there are rules for writing numbers:

  • Spell out numbers less than ten, and use numerals for numbers equal to or greater than ten (e.g., four, 14)
  • Always spell out numbers that begin a sentence, or rewrite the sentence so that the number does not appear at the beginning

These rules work well in most, but not all, situations. Writers must observe the usage standards that apply to a particular writing project or genre. The most important rule is to be consistent. Because, in most cases, the rules for writing out (or not writing out) numbers are not clearly stated, writers must often decide which standard to apply. Once a rule has been established, it must be observed uniformly.

4. Abbreviations

Writers sometimes have difficulty using abbreviations because, like the rules related to numbers, guidelines that govern the use of abbreviations are often assumed rather than stated directly. Different formatting styles involve different rules for abbreviation, so writers — especially student writers — should find out which format a teacher or course requires and follow it unwaveringly.

big idea
In general, abbreviations should not be used in academic writing. When in doubt, spell it out!

There are, however, key exceptions to this "big idea." For example, it is permissible to use an abbreviation when it has its own dictionary definition or is otherwise commonly known. This includes abbreviations such as FBI or IQ, or the abbreviation used in this sentence:

I want to work for the IRS, but I'm no good at math.

It's also acceptable to use an abbreviation when the full phrase has been previously introduced, as in this sentence:

The Irish Republican Army, or IRA, was most active during the late 1960s.

Latin abbreviations or reference abbreviations can also be used, as demonstrated in the following sentence:

The sources (i.e., Holmes, Catalino et al.) were used throughout the text.

Note: The preceding sentence is for demonstration purposes only; it's not recommended to use two abbreviations in one sentence.

This tutorial investigated some of the mechanical aspects of the English language: when and how to use capitalization and italics, rules that govern spelling out (and not spelling out) numbers, and the acceptable use of abbreviations.

Source: Adapted from Sophia Instructor Gavin McCall