It seems to have been common practice in the 17th and 18th centuries in English-language sources to capitalise the first letters of nouns, as in

At which Time he prov'd himself the Noah's Dove, that finding himself no Rest anywhere, was receiv'd again into his own Ark, and brought a peaceable Olive-Leaf in his mouth.
Titus Britannicus: an Essay of History Royal (1685)

Most original sources I can find on the web have used modern rules for capitalisation, so I have a few questions:

  • Was the practice used for all nouns (Note mouth isn't capitalised in my quotation above.)?
  • When did this practice begin?
  • When and why did it end?

6 Answers 6


Capitalisation to this extent wasn't around in Old English, and I didn't remember any in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but it seemed exist in some Shakespeare folios and not others, so it certainly hasn't been around since the beginning of written English.

I found this in an actual printed book, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (David Crystal), p67, where the internet let me down. It's in the section about emerging orthography in the 16th Century:

Hart recommended his readers to use a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence, proper name, and important common noun. By the 17th century, the practice had extended to titles (Sir, Lady), forms of address (Father, Mistris), and personified nouns (Nature). Emphasized words and phrases would also attract a capital. By the beginning of the 18th century, the influence of Continental books had caused this practice to be extended still further (e.g. to the names of the branches of knowledge), and it was not long before some writers began using a capital for any noun that they felt to be important. Books appeared in which all or most nouns were given an initial capital (as is done systematically in modern German) - perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or perhaps because printers were uncertain about which nouns to capitalize, and so capitalized them all.

The fashion was at its height in the later 17th century, and continued into the 18th. The manuscripts of Butler, Traherne, Swift, and Pope are full of initial capitals. However, the later 18th-century grammarians were not amused by this apparent lack of discipline in the written language. In their view, the proliferation of capitals was unnecessary, and causing the loss of a useful potential distinction. Their rules brought a dramatic reduction in the types of noun permitted to take a capital letter.

It seems odd that Hart's recommendations on capitalisation should have taken root where his suggestions for phonetic spelling have fallen on deaf ears...

  • Good for you for checking Crystal. Those encyclopedias are incredible sources of information. They should be in every Anglophone classroom in the world. The glossary at the end is worth the price. Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 0:21

"In summary, the practice began with the dawn of written English, probably."

This is incorrect. Although the capitalisation of nouns does occur in German and did occur in other Germanic languages, it didn't occur in Old English or Middle English texts. There was a brief trend, in the 17th and 18th centuries, when nouns were capitalised, but it wasn't standardised and there were no rules about it.

It stopped around the time that English became standardised, which is most likely why it disappeared. With the introduction of "correct" spellings, formatting probably became less necessary.

Still trying to find out why it happened at all. Was it just a fashionable trend? Was there a resurgence of German literature in England?

  • Do you have any sources to back up this claim?
    – March Ho
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 12:21
  • @MarchHo Just look at this, this or indeed any other original in Old or Middle English and check the nouns out. Most Old English that I have seen only seem to capitalize letters so that they can be illuminated or at the beginnings of "paragraphs" or large chunks of text (I'm talking about pictures of the original writing as in the photos on the links or glimpses of the real thing if you're lucky enough, not modern typeset versions of the original language) Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 13:54
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    It must have been very fashionable indeed, because the US Constitution (1787) includes some truly wild capitalization choices. It is for the most part internally consistent, but it gave us such phrases as "supreme Court," which just looks completely wrong by modern standards. But there are a few irregularities, like capitalizing adjectives ("The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government") or inconsistent capitalization of numbers ("the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven").
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 9, 2022 at 21:40
  • I Googled that last quote, and you are right, the E of Eighty is capitalized. What were they thinking? Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 14:33

Capitalization of many--but not all--common nouns is extensive in the America of the 18th century. For example, see the Declaration of Independence.

Americans still capitalized most nouns into the 19th century.

For example, see the following excerpt from one of John Adams' letters to his son. There doesn't seem to be a consistent system.

1804: "braced our feet [not capitalized] against the Bed boards and Bedsteads to prevent us from having our Brains dashed out against the Planks and Timbers of the Ship." Quoted in article in New Yorker magazine May 5, 2014

By the time of the Civil War, the practice seems to have ended (example: the Gettysburg Address does not capitalize common nouns).

I would love to know when, why and how this practice ended.


To supplement the information in gpr's answer, I note a further feature of English texts of the 17th and 18th centuries: it was standard practice for printers to set place names and people's names in italics. Thus, the complete sentence that the poster cites, which is from Aurelian Cook, Titus Britannicus: An Essay of History Royal in the Life and Reign of His Late Sacred Majesty, Charles II (1685), actually looks like more like this:

His Restoration I can compare to nothing better than that easie, delicious, and jocund Temper of the Elements, of Heaven, the Air, and Sea, after a violent and outragious Tempest, or rather after the great Deluge of the World; at which Time, he prov'd himself the Noah's Dove, that finding no Rest any where, was receiv'd again into his own Ark, and brought a peaceable Olive-Leaf in his Mouth.

The italicization of which is somewhat unusual, and the italicization of Olive is rather mysterious as well; but the italicization of Noah is standard for the time. A quick scan of nearby paragraphs reveals that the words Seneca, Hercules, France, French, England, Cromwel, Rome, Janus, Muses, and Christendom are likewise set in italics.

It's easy to see how this additional level of distinction (between proper names and regular nouns) could lead to inconsistency. For example, Cook's printer italicizes Satyr—evidently the personification of satire—but not Goddess (referring to one of the muses). And though he italicizes Muses on one page, he sets it in regular roman two pages later. And why does he use italics for "the Great Chancellor" but not for "this Prince" three words earlier?

To some extent we inherited the proper name complication, as regular nouns became all lowercase, while proper names went from initial caps and italics to initial caps and roman. But I suspect that it's easier to keep track of which words you've initial-capped and which you've left lowercase than to track which words you've initial-capped and which you've initial-capped and italicized.

In any event, the downfall of initial-capped common nouns seems to have occurred at the same time as the demise of italicized initial-capped proper names.


Capitalization of all nouns is still the rule in German, and other Germanic languages. English also belongs to the Germanic family of languages, and the practice was also prevalent in English until the 18th century.

At some point, I'm not sure precisely when, the practice diminished. Note that this is around the same time that English spelling was being standardized, so that there was only one "correct" spelling for each word, which wasn't the case until the beginning of the 19th century.

In summary, the practice began with the dawn of written english, probably. It ended towards the end of the 18th century. I'm not sure why, precisely, but I suspect that it had to do with more commonly available education, and the things that happen to written language when the masses start reading and writing.

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    There's another Germanic language besides German that capitalizes all nouns? Which one?
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Jan 29, 2011 at 16:05
  • I'd like to see a source/reference for these assertions. I don't believe any language other than German rigorously capitalises all its nouns.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Jan 29, 2011 at 16:59
  • 1
    I read that Danish did until very recently, will try to find that reference again...
    – gpr
    Commented Jan 29, 2011 at 21:30
  • 12
    Aha. Luxembourgish still capitalises nouns, and Danish did until 1948 - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitalization#Nouns
    – gpr
    Commented Jan 29, 2011 at 22:28
  • This is probably not true, as alluded by Stella's answer, and as anecdotally verified by my glance at The Book of Margery Kempe -- for instance, "temptacyon" isn't capitalized.
    – Maroon
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 21:06

Standardized spelling and orthography came as a result of the Caxton Printing press in 1476. Since they did not have enough letters to accommodate all the rules of the time, they agreed on grammatical standards and used them from that time forward. Grammarians felt that it was unnecessary to capitalize all nouns and the printing press agreed because there were more lowercase letters. As a result, orthography became standardized and the capitalization of all nouns was done away with.

  • 3
    If capitalisation was done away with from 1476, how was it "at its height in the later 17th century"? Anyway, surely the lettercutters would have made as much type as necessary.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 6:09