18th Century Capitalization


I’ve been reading through a lot of material from the Revolutionary War period and I’m puzzled by the capitalization common to the period. I can’t identify the particular rules that determined how words were capitalized. I sense that some words were modified into proper nouns, perhaps assigning a degree of relative importance to them, but that’s about as close as I can get to a discernible pattern. Punctuation also seems to have been used at the whim of the author rather than by adherence to a set of rules.

For example, here’s a sentence quoted from John Ferling’s excellent book Almost a Miracle:

Why were “Imbarkation” and “Departure” capitalized? Here is another example from the same book:

“Acted?” “Laudable?” “A?”

I have read that no less a writer than Thomas Jefferson (in addition to other notable contemporary writers) praised George Washington’s writing for its correctness and readability, despite Washington’s “defective education.” To me, this suggests that the Founders’ words we read today were penned in their correct form for the time, by educated and literate men. Ferling notes that he left the original quotes as they were written, without modernization or correction. Does anyone know about the rules of English usage at the time that would have defined how words were capitalized?


I thought this would be an easy question. Apparently it isn’t, but this attempt is both useful and entertaining in its own right:
ask.metafilter.com/29691/What-is … talization



That link is the perfect response to my question, and an entertaining read indeed! Thank you for your reply.


I read a lot of eighteenth century books and it seems that capitalisation is largely a personal matter. Many modern editions standardise capitalisation, which I find a pity because the texts where they don’t, I find I can get into the author’s rhythms better.

I would think it’s because of the Germanic ties. In German, all nouns are capitalized. We may well have followed that pattern, either from influences of Reformation literature (largely Germanic) or the natural language affinity.

Just like once upon a time some verbs we use now with helping verbs used to not require them…

Hello again,

I was reading our beloved Declaration of Independence from the Pocket Constitution booklet given to me by my congressman when I noticed a pattern to the capitalization of certain words. It appears the only words capitalized are the nouns. If you read through each sentence and diagram its parts of speech in your head, you can see that only those nouns that do not belong to one of the sentence’s supporting clauses (i.e., those clauses represented on branches of the diagram’s tree) are capitalized. Other parts of speech that are rendered into nouns through contortions of the English language apparently also escape the need to be capitalized.

I doubt this answers the original question wholesale, but I found the pattern sufficiently noteworthy to merit a description of my observation here for others who are similarly intrigued by this apparently nonsensical, lawless, Enlightenment-era mystery.


I recently cruised through a book on history of English. A big take away was a reminder that English grammar was not as standardized then. There was a big move in the 19th C to standardize. So, you can capitalize the way you’d like if you’re mimicking 18thC grammar. YOLO.


Rock on. I shall do just that.


With a limited sample set, I wonder if the caps were also to eliminate confusion in handwritten documents. Ex. The letter a can easily be mistaken for an o in lowercase form.

But I like the noun idea a bit better.

Some sound explanations to be had here, further down the page. britlitwiki.wikispaces.com/Eight … y+Grammars