Capitals in French vs English: a Capital Matter!

Capitals in French and in English

Capitalization is different in English and in French on several aspects. One of my English university professors used to repeat ׅ“English is poor in commas but rich in capitals.” Absolutely true! Here are a few cases where we need to be cautious when translating English into French.

1. Title of art or creative pieces

In French, only the first letter of the title is capitalized unless the title contains a proper name.

À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou

Je vais à Londres

However, in English, there are capitals almost everywhere! All the words of the title are capitalized, except from articles, conjunctions and prepositions of fewer than four letters (some sources even say three).

The Man Who Sold the World

Four Weddings and a Funeral

2. Languages

capitalization of languages

“I speak in English” but “je parle français”. Languages are capitalized in English but not in French.

However, if you see in French a word that looks like a language name and is capitalized, don’t jump to conclusions too fast and call it a mistake! If the word refers to a person or people from a specific nation, it must be capitalized.

Faire la sieste comme les Espagnols. (Nap like the Spaniards = name = capital)

Un café espagnol (a Spanish coffee = adjective = lowercase)

Confusing? Yes, a little. Welcome to the French world ;).

3. Academic subjects

Capitalization of school subjects

In an interesting article, the Canadian Style, a reference in English grammar in Canada, says not to capitalize the names of disciplines when used in a general sense, but to capitalize them when used to refer to school subjects or the names of particular courses.

Sorry, what?

Let’s illustrate this with an example:

I take a History class this semester.

She likes to read history books.

Here’s a rare case where French is simpler than English. In French, there’s no distinction to make, you can use lowercase characters all the way. Hurray!

4. Events and holidays

Here is one of the most interesting cases, in my opinion. In English, it’s very simple: capitalize every word related to a celebration or an event.

April Fool’s Day

Second World War

the Middle Ages

In French, watch out: capitalize the specific and any adjective placed before, but use the lowercase for all adjectives placed after. Why make it simple when we can make it complicated?

Deuxième Guerre mondiale

Vendredi saint

le Grand Dérangement

In doubt, I recommend to check in a French dictionary of proper names like Le Petit Robert des noms propres (available online with a subscription).

5. Religious terms

capitalization of religious terms

Authors of religious texts are sometimes subject to a mystical frenzy. The result: an all-you-can-eat buffet of capitals. This phenomenon exists both in French and in English.

Generally, we capitalize:

  • the name of sacred entities (God, Jesus, Allah)
  • surnames of the « divine Being » (the Almighty, the Lord)
  • pronouns and possessive adjectives related to sacred entities (Trust in Him whose strength will uphold you/Prions le Très-Haut afin qu’Il nous accueille dans Son royaume.)

In English, we even capitalize the name of sacred places.

Many Buddhists seek to attain Nirvana.

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

In front of this deluge of capitals, the Canadian Style makes this pretty funny recommendation: “Writers should resist the temptation to overcapitalize.” Amen.

In short

As always, various sources make various recommendations, and it is sometimes difficult to decide what rule to follow. Some sources even have a whole chapter about capitalization! Don’t worry: once you’ve found a reliable source, follow its rules and make sure to be consistent, but remember that particular attention must be paid to capitals in the translation process from English to French.

=> You might also be interested in this article: When should you use “tu” or “vous” in French?

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