Today, I want to tell you about something that is utterly essential if you are going to take the IELTS exam. I’m talking about capitalisation. That means the use of capital letters when writing in English. If you do not know how to use capital letters correctly, you simply will not be able to get a good score, so it is of the utmost importance that you learn before booking an IELTS test date. Fortunately, in today’s lesson I’m going to tell you everything you need to know.
For those of you who prefer listening, this lesson is available in video form:
What is Capitalisation and Why is it so Important?
Let’s start with the basics. Capitalisation refers to the use of capital letters in English. We sometimes call these “upper case” letters. In the context of this lesson, capitalisation refers to the correct combination of upper case and lower case letters in words used for your IELTS essays.
Let’s take a look at a sentence:
Climate change is a major problem for Governments around the World.
If an IELTS examiner read this essay, they would immediately notice that there is a very, very big mistake. In fact, there are two big mistakes. The words “government” and “world” have been capitalised for no reason. The sentence, of course, should look like this:
Climate change is a major problem for governments around the world.
Writing in English is difficult because there are many mistakes we could make, but not all mistakes are equal in terms of severity. There are big mistakes and small mistakes. The ones that are easiest to notice are considered the biggest, along with ones that are so severe they obscure the meaning of the sentence. Capitalisation is a huge problem because it immediately and obviously tells the examiner that you have a very low level of English. Being able to use capital letters is something that a child would be expected to do, and as IELTS is a very advanced English test for people looking to study or work abroad, it would be disastrous for your score.
Considering all that, let’s now look at some of the rules of capitalisation so that you can avoid this catastrophic error.
The Basic Rules of Capitalisation
The first thing you need to know when thinking about capitalisation is that we can broadly group nouns into two kinds: common nouns and proper nouns. A common noun is a regular word that could refer to many different things or ideas. Look around you and most of the things that you see will have common nouns – a computer, for example, or a desk, a chair. Your house, its walls, its windows, and its doors are all common nouns. We would not, therefore, capitalise these.
Proper nouns, however, are words that refer to something more specific and unmistakable. Let’s go back to the idea of a computer. Whilst a computer is just a thing, the company that made your computer would have an official name, and this would be capitalised. Likewise, the companies may have different types of computers that have official names. These would all need capital letters. In fact, most things that have an official name would be capitalised in English. All countries, counties, continents, provinces, cities, and towns should be capitalised. Even our planet – the Earth – should be capitalised, and for that matter we capitalise the other planets in the solar system. People’s names are also capitalised, along with businesses, brands, and organisations, as well as the names of films, books, and bands. We also capitalise the days of the week, the months of the year, and festivals like Christmas, Ramadan, and Lunar New Year. Oddly, we even capitalise the word “I” no matter where it comes in a sentence, even though we would not capitalise other pronouns.
In addition to those rules, capitalisation is affected by punctuation. The most important thing to know is that we must ALWAYS capitalise the first word in a sentence. If you failed to do this, you would have demonstrated a lack of understanding of basic English grammar. Similarly, we must not capitalise a word after a comma (unless of course it is a proper noun). A mistake like this would instantly tell the examiner that your level is around band 4 or 5.
The Hard Parts of Capitalisation
The rules that I have taught you so far are among the most basic in the English language. As a teacher, if I had a student who did not know these, I would tell him not to waste his money on the exam until he had spent a lot more time studying. However, there are some slightly more challenging aspects to punctuation, where it can be harder to know whether to use a capital letter or not. Let’s look at some of the ones that commonly confuse IELTS candidates.
First of all, let’s look at cardinal directions. By cardinal directions, I mean north, east, south, west, and so on. These are NOT proper nouns so you should not capitalise them. However, there are some exceptions. These words can become proper nouns in some rare cases. For example, when talking about Asia, we often say “the East” or “the Far East.” As this refers to a specific place, it is a proper noun. Likewise, the counterpart to the East is of course “the West.” This can be a bit harder for people to remember, but it is important to think of these as places and to know that we always capitalise official place names. Thus, we might say “Ancient spice traders set out for the Far East. If they went by sea, they would have to sail south around Africa and then east across the Indian Ocean.” Note that “Far East,” as a place name just like Indian Ocean, is capitalised, but the words “south” and “east” are not. There are cardinal directions incorporated into many places, from continents like South America to countries like North Korea, and we must remember to capitalise them accordingly.
A similar problem emerges with the word “university” because it is often part of an official name, yet the word itself is not a proper noun. Look at this conversation. Whenever we talk generally about a university, referring to an idea of a university but not one specific one, we use a lower case “u.” However, when referring to the official name of a university, we must use a capital “U.”
What Sort of Capitalisation Mistakes do IELTS Learners Make?
In a 2019 study, researchers found that “capitalisation errors were found to be common for speakers of all” languages, although not all suffered these problems to the same extent, with an interesting note that these mistakes were MORE common among learners whose native language also used the Roman alphabet. This is probably because capitalisation rules differ from country to country and it is harder to adapt from one style to another than to learn completely from scratch. In German, for example, ALL nouns are capitalised, and this is something they need to consider when learning English.
For me, though, the most interesting part of this study was their finding that “under-capitalisation was significantly more common than over-capitalisation” because it is the opposite of my experience marking IELTS essays. Now, it is important to consider that while this study was conducted over a large body of work from English learners and it included some IELTS material, it was certainly not devoted to IELTS essays. I could not, in fact, find a study dedicated entirely to capitalisation and IELTS. However, having read more than 20,000 essays, I can say that over-capitalisation appears to me to be a bigger problem for IELTS candidates.
Unique Task 1 Challenges
When it comes to IELTS academic, for task 1 you will need to write a report that describes a line graph, bar chart, or some other kind of visual data. This presents a unique problem because the sort of things you need to describe often have a special sort of non-grammatical language that is used to condense information into a shorter form.
Let’s take this table as an example. The headings are common nouns like food, drink, tobacco, clothing, and so on. Obviously, these should NOT be capitalised. However, you will note that they ARE capitalised in the table. That’s because in headings and labels, we almost always capitalise words against the rules of grammar. One of the challenges of IELTS writing task 1 is converting those headings and labels into proper grammar.
Unfortunately, many IELTS candidates simply copy the words they see in the chart, thinking that if it was written by the IELTS test makers, it must be correct. They don’t realise that they are required to convert these words into proper language. Even though this might seem like a small issue to you, it immediately signals to the examiner that you do not understand a very basic part of the language, and that your score should reflect that lack of knowledge. As such, always make sure to convert headings and labels to proper grammar for IELTS writing.
Hopefully, by now you understand that capitalisation is of the utmost importance when it comes to IELTS writing, and that making a mistake in this area would almost certainly have a devastating impact on your score. It is of critical importance then that you familiarise yourself with the rules I have discussed: 1) Put a capital letter at the start of each sentence, but not after a comma. 2) Always capitalise proper nouns. 3) Do not capitalise common nouns (unless of course they are the first word in the sentence).
Honestly, there are not many things to remember here, so this really is something you should be able to master quickly and easily. If you are still unsure, then I will leave a few links to some useful resources below that contain more detailed guides, examples, and a few practice exercises. If you can get this correct all of the time, you put yourself on the right track to a high band score.