I am often confused how the word "English" should be written in phrases such as "English language", because I have seen both variants: capitalized and starting with lowercase letter.

What is the most accepted usage: "English language" or "english language"? And what about other possible usage of the adjective "english"?

  • 1
    +1 I recently came across someone saying that "English" was incorrect for the language, and that it ought to be "english". – Andrew Grimm May 8 '13 at 13:54
  • Seven years out and this question still has no answer. The answers just debate among themselves. – SigmaX Oct 18 '17 at 13:54

If it is a proper noun, it must be capitalized.

If it is an adjective derived from a proper noun, it should retain its capitalization, according to this Wikipedia entry:

In English, adjectives derived from proper nouns (except the names of characters in fictional works) usually retain their capitalization
– e.g. a Christian church, Canadian whisky, a Shakespearean sonnet, but not a quixotic mission, malapropism, holmesian nor pecksniffian.

Where the original capital is no longer at the beginning of the word, usage varies: anti-Christian, but Presocratic or Pre-Socratic or presocratic (not preSocratic).

The "usually" might explain why you sometimes see "english" without any capitalization. The only case of "english" as a common noun would be in the context of pool, billiards or bowling games, as described by Wiktionary:

english (uncountable)

  1. (US) Spinning or rotary motion given to a ball around the vertical axis, as in billiards or bowling.

You can't hit it directly, but maybe if you give it some english.

  • 22
    This really could have been clearer. The answer doesn’t state unambgiuously that, when referring to the language, the people or the country, English is always a proper noun. This is not obvious. – Timwi Aug 30 '10 at 13:19
  • 2
    It's not obvious that the name of a language, a people, or a country is a proper noun? – Kosmonaut Aug 30 '10 at 13:48
  • 14
    No, it is not obvious that a language's name is a proper noun, at least to a non-English mothertongue. Why should it be for a language and not, say, for a plant (Birch) or a tool (Hammer)? (To add something, in Italian proper nouns are capitalised too, but a language's is not considered a proper noun.) – DaG Aug 20 '12 at 10:15
  • 1
    I can't help thinking that even in the billiards or bowling context, English ought to be capitalised. There is surely an implied noun. (English spin??). It's hard for me to tell, because in English English, you would call it screw, at least upon the green baize. – Dominic Cronin Nov 5 '12 at 22:00
  • 1
    @Kosmonaut: no, it isn't. Don't take it for granted because English treats them as such. Individual people and geographical places (including countries) are more or less universally proper nouns. But many other categories are not: months, weekdays, languages, peoples, religions and similar other items are not necessarily proper nouns in many languages. – Gábor Aug 2 '19 at 15:03

Unless you mean spin on a billiards ball, it should be capitalized.

  • 1
    To "put english on the ball" or "use body english" seems to be captialized as often as it is not, so there doesn't seem to be consensus on that. Other than that, the only time I've seen "english" is in computer directory (folder) and file names, where the program author has just left languages in lower case. Certainly, in proper text it should otherwise always be English. – Phil Perry Apr 11 '14 at 15:22

I often confused how the word "English" should be written in phrases like "English language", because I meet both variants: capitalized and starting with lowercase letter.

Hmm, really? Probably just seeing mistakes.

What is the most accepted usage: "English language" or "english language"? And what about other possible usage of the adjective "english"?

"English language" with a capital.

There are some uses of national adjectives which don't have to be capitalized, such as "french windows". Presumably the same logic would apply to something like "english muffins". However I don't have statistics as to which is more common.

  • 2
    I believe that both "English muffins" and "French windows" are usually capitalized. – Ellie Kesselman Aug 2 '11 at 10:31
  • @FeralOink What about "french fries"? – Yatharth Agarwal Aug 20 '12 at 9:46
  • 1
    @YatharthROCK I would say that "French fries" is the way to go. Wikipedia agrees with me en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_fries or does with the qualifier "generally". But the fact that Wikipedia agrees with me (or I with it) doesn't mean we are right and you are wrong. I like to capitalize anything and everything associated with a country or nationality or language as a respect thing. But that is not said sanctimoniously to you! I want to see my own favorite nationalities and languages capitalized, so I may be hyper-vigilant about ensuring that it is applied universally. – Ellie Kesselman Aug 27 '12 at 5:44
  • 1
    Actually, France/the French have little to do with "french fries". The full name is "french-cut fried potatoes", where french cut is to cut a vegetable into long thin strips. Presumably it originated in French cooking. See the U.S. hysteria over France in 2003 and the renaming of "French fries" to "Freedom fries". – Phil Perry Apr 11 '14 at 15:18
  • @YatharthROCK: There is now a question about the capitalization of "French fries" specifically: French fries or french fries? – herisson May 3 '17 at 21:53

English as a proper noun for the people of England, or the language which bears its name, should always be capitalized. It is a proper noun, after all.

In the phrase, the English language we have two nouns, with one functioning like an adjective to refine the meaning of the final noun in the group. If it wasn't capitalized you would call english an adjective. Capitalized, it is a pronoun and makes the phrase a compound noun. Just because it is functioning to refine the meaning of the terminal noun in the phrase, does not make it an adjective. It is still a noun, I think.

Etymologically, this usage is probably derived from a common language shortcut where people just started saying things like the dining room table, instead of the table of the room of dining, which is a sort of construction you might see more often in Spanish and Italian.

  • 2
    I don't think "the English language" is a compound noun. The word "English" behaves as an adjective in other contexts: "they are English", "a very English tradition". It has the suffix "-ish", which is associated with adjectives rather than nouns. The use of "English" as a noun referring to a language seems to be a type of ellipsis. – herisson Jul 1 '17 at 17:34
  • If it is capitalized in the phrase then it is a compound noun. It's capitalized because it is a pronoun. Not sure how one would use it as a plain adjective. – Ubu English Jul 2 '17 at 15:13
  • For pete's sake, proper names function as adjectives all the time. The English language, the French language, the Spanish language=those are adjectives, my friend. Cornes-aux-cul, vive le Père Ubu ! [if I remember the play correctly!] As for it being a pronoun, retour aux livres scolaires, mon ami. – Lambie Jul 2 '17 at 15:46
  • 1
    "They are very English" isn't English an adjective here? – Mari-Lou A Jul 2 '17 at 18:55

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.