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Capital letters

Should a sentence always start with a capital letter?

Capital letters

Should a sentence always start with a capital letter?

From as soon as we start writing, we are told that the first letter of a sentence should always be capitalised, but just occasionally, is it OK to break this rule?

What’s made me consider this is the fact that several companies break the grammatical rule of beginning a proper noun with a capital letter. Two notable examples are eBay and all the Apple products beginning with the i- prefix, such as the iPhone and iTunes. What if you want to start a start a sentence with one of these?

Grammarians are split on whether a sentence should begin with “iTunes” or “ITunes”. This forum highlights the disagreement, with two users making brief but equally valid arguments. One states:

“A trademark is a trademark. I would not capitalize it.”

However, this is countered with:

“Conversely: A sentence is a sentence. No commercial company has the ability to change the basic rules of grammar.”

Journalists and news sites seem similarly undecided. Here’s another forum that gives citations of publishers varying their use of “eBay” and “EBay”, sometimes even within the same article.

Not surprisingly, companies tend to prefer the “a trademark is a trademark” argument and stylise their names in a way that supersedes grammatical rules. On eBay’s website, the name always begins with a lower case “e” followed by a capital “B”, regardless of where it is in a sentence. We’ve also had experience of this at Engage Web, where we once had a client that always wanted the company name written entirely in lower case.

For that client, we tended to try to avoid starting sentences with the company name, and perhaps that’s best way around the issue. Rather than alter the appearance of the brand name or grit your teeth as you break one of the most basic rules of grammar, rework the sentence if possible. For example, instead of:

“eBay/EBay is based in California and is the most popular online auction website.”

You could say:

“California-based eBay is the most popular online auction website.”

What about numerals?

You can’t capitalise a number, so what if you want to start a sentence with a numeral like “7” or “51”?

The usual advice is that you shouldn’t. A numeral at the start of a sentence should be converted to a word, such as “seven” or “fifty-one”. Of course, with years and other large numbers, this can quickly become ungainly, so rather than start a sentence with “two thousand and twenty-one” or “twenty twenty-one”, it would be better to follow the aforementioned advice and try to rephrase the sentence so that it doesn’t start with the number.

So, to answer the question, over 99% sentences should and do start with capital letters, and for those that threaten to break this rule, it’s advisable to word the sentence in a way that’s more conducive to standard grammar. However, since we write for businesses at Engage Web, we always ask our clients how they would like to be referred to in their copy, and can offer advice of our own on this.

John Murray
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