Do You Capitalize The Word “University”? When & When Not To


do you capitalize university

We commonly refer to our education when writing things like resumes. In doing so we may wonder if we should capitalize the word “university.”

You should never capitalize the word “university” unless you’re referring to a university’s complete proper name. So, you would capitalize University of Maine but you would not capitalize university when it is used by itself in a sentence.

Etymology of the Word University

The word university is found in many different languages dating back to c. 1300 when it meant “an institution of higher learning.” Some of these languages include:

  • Anglo-French as université where it meant “a body of persons constituting a university” 
  • Old French as universite where it meant “universality; academic community” 
  • Medieval Latin as universitatem (universitas) where it meant  “the whole, aggregate,” 
  • Late Latin as universus where it meant “corporation, society, whole, entire” (This was also the source of the Spanish word universidad, the German word universitat, and the Russian word universitet, amongst others).

university sign on brick wall with books

When it comes to the academic sense of this word, it’s actually a shortening of universitas magistrorum et scholarium which in English means “a community of masters and scholars.”

When to Capitalize the Word “University”

Do you capitalize university? Unfortunately, this isn’t a question that can be answered with a simple yes or no. There are some times when you should capitalize the word university while at other times you should use a lowercase instead. It’s important to take a moment to understand the distinctions here.

When “University” is Capitalized

One of the main times when you want to make sure that you capitalize the word university is when it’s functioning as a proper noun. A proper noun is a noun (a person, place or thing) that identifies a single entity and is used to refer to that entity (e.g. Tokyo, Earth, Steven, Pepsi). 

This is different from a common noun (a noun that refers to a class of entities). You should always capitalize a proper noun because it’s referring specifically to a person, place, or thing. For instance, if you were to say “The girl is coming” it could mean any girl is coming. However, when you state that “Sarah is coming” you’ve specified which girl is coming therefore you would capitalize the name Sarah. 

This same rule also applies to the word university. When you use this word as a proper noun (e.g. University of Notre Dame) then you would capitalize the word university. You do so because there is a physical presence for this word that can be seen, visited, and addressed. This makes it a proper noun and as a proper noun it’s required to be capitalized as per the conventions of grammar.

Even when you use the word university by itself it should still be capitalized if it’s referring to a specific entity. For instance: “I want to attend Penn State University. The University offers specialized programs whose standards are universally accepted.” In this sentence, the word university has been used twice. The first time it appears as a proper noun. The second time it is used by itself. Since we have been made aware of the name of the college that we’re talking about it is capitalized. This is because we know that the term college is being used in regards to a specific institution.

When “University” is not Capitalized

You never capitalize the word university when it’s being used as a common noun. This happens when you’re talking about a university in general. Common nouns aren’t subject to capitalization because they’re a generic name that has no specificity. This means that when you say “Attending university is a dream for many people” then the word university is a generic word. This is because nobody knows for certain what university you’re speaking of. The rules of grammar dictate that you write a common noun in lowercase letters.

The key here is whether the word university is being used as a proper noun or as a common noun. When the word is being used as a common noun you don’t need to capitalize it. However, when the word is used as a proper noun (one that demonstrates identity or specificity) then you do need to capitalize it.

Using a vs. an With the Word “University”

There is another small grammatical nuance that you may encounter when you’re dealing with the word university. This has to do with whether you should use the word “a” or the word “an” in front of it. Of course, you want to use the one that’s more grammatically correct. While it does sound better to say “a university” we must always remember that grammar precedes writing even though lax grammar rules are commonly found in casual speech. So, which is the correct way of saying this?

The simple answer here is that saying “an university” is wrong. While many people think that we are supposed to use the word an before a vowel letter, the correct grammatical rule here is that we’re supposed to use the word an before a vowel sound. When you say the word university you say it with a y sound (like yellow). Of course, it’s also much easier to say “a university” than it is to say “an university.” This just so happens to be one of the rules of English grammar that is phonologically-driven, not spelling-driven. 

students take a test at university

Most English speakers don’t know a whole lot about the English language’s phonological system. This is because most people are very literate and so they’ll often confuse letters with the actual sounds themselves. An example of this is “u.” According to Standard British English, it has three separate sounds (pup, should, chute).  

Most people will also tell you that there are 5 vowels in English. This is because people are thinking about the letters themselves. In actuality, the English language has 20 different vowel sounds. Unfortunately a lot of people today have grown so fixated on spelling that they don’t pay any attention to the sounds that they’re producing. This is why they’ll sometimes deny that what they’re saying is what they’re actually saying.

There are many different grammar rules in the English language. These rules vary depending upon which English dialect you’re speaking of. For instance, with formal English you have a lot of artificial rules in place to help people communicate, especially those people who aren’t from the same area or don’t use the same dialect. Formal written English is highly standardized in an attempt to iron out any differences that may exist while also helping to encourage greater clarity amongst those who are speaking.

You’ll also find that both writing and speaking have different constraints on them. This is why the rules of both are so different from each other. You can think of this in terms of one being done in real-time while the other is done “offline.” If you were to speak in the same way that you wrote it wouldn’t be more grammatical. It would simply be incorrect because your language wouldn’t be appropriate for the recipient or the purpose for which you’re speaking.

Unfortunately, many people are led astray by the written word. This happens because they choose to ignore the grammar. With this being said, “an university” is simply incorrect in both writing and speech. However, there are some places where the U.S. and the U.K. disagree in terms of the English language’s use of the word a/an. For instance, this is true of the phrase “a historic occasion” – something that is appropriate in U.K. English but in U.S. English it should be “a historic occasion.”

A Look at the Word College

Another word that is similar to university is college. This word dates back to circa late fourteenth century. Here it was used to refer to an “organized association of persons invested with certain powers and rights or engaged in some common duty or pursuit.” This was especially true in reference to a “body of scholars and students within an endowed institution of learning.” The word itself is probably directly derived from Latin collegium meaning a community, society, or guild. 

The word college is capitalized whenever you’re using it to refer to a university’s principle undergraduate unit. When you are writing this out you shouldn’t ever capitalize the word “the” in front of it.

Examples of “University” in a Sentence 

  1. They loved attending university, they said those were the best years of their life.
  2. Harvard University is among the highest-ranking education institutions in the United States.
  3. She said her teaching degree was from Berkeley University. I didn’t know they offered that career there.
  4. A lot of seniors in high school fear the next step, university life. In reality, they will come to discover those will be the years they will miss the most.
  5. The acronym CUNY stands for The City University of New York.
  6. He had a plan for his life. First university for his degree, then marriage, then starting up his business.

Conclusion

smiling young man points at university sign

So, in hindsight, when capitalizing the word “university” we will always follow the rules of thumb, we will capitalize “university” when it is part of a title or part of the name of a proper noun used next to the name of a certain institution. For all other instances, we do not need to capitalize the word “university” because in those cases it will act as a general noun.

Now you know, and the next time you write and “university” is used depending on the context you will know what to do.

Shawn Manaher

Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.

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