Grammergency #18: Crazy for Capitals
Contributor
Written by
Annie Tucker
August 2015
Contributor
Written by
Annie Tucker
August 2015

When was the last time you took a gander at The Declaration of Independence? It had been a while for me, but I revisited it this week and it confirmed just what I suspected: the United States is founded on unnecessary capitalization. Right from the outset, the authors go nuts capitalizing regular old nouns as they describe how we all deserve “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . . That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . .”

Well, Thomas Jefferson et al. may beg to differ, but today I’m going to talk about four areas in which I frequently see this dubious legacy playing out in the documents I edit.

Capitalization of Professional Titles

I constantly come across midsentence capitalization of stand-alone job titles, as in “I am the President of my company,” and “I work as a Marketing Director.” In regular prose, the correct format is to lowercase professional, civil, military, and religious titles, unless a title is used in lieu of the title holder’s first name (e.g., “President Obama”). I have a hunch that people think this overzealous capitalization adds an “official” air to their corporate communications, but no one will think of your role as any less significant if you substitute the all-lowercase “I am the president of my company.” For a more nuanced discussion of this guideline and its exceptions, see Chapter 8 of The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS).

Capitalization of Academic Terms

Many author bios I edit say something like, “So-and-so has a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and now works as a Family Therapist.” Now, we already know to lowercase “family therapist” (see above), but “master’s degree” and “clinical psychology” should both be lowercased as well in this context. Names of academic disciplines and degrees are not capitalized midsentence; only if you were referring to a specific class name would capitals apply, e.g., “My second-period class is Psych 101.”

Capitalization of Food Names

Restaurants often capitalize the dishes on their menus for the sake of grandiosity, but don’t fall into this trap in your own writing. Generally, foods classify as common nouns and should be lowercased, whether you’re eating pasta carbonara or three-bean chili or vegan cheesecake. And if the name of a food includes a proper noun, such as beef Wellington, eggs Benedict, pad Thai, and Waldorf salad, only the proper noun is initial-capped. If you’re curious about a specific dish, look it up in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Capitalization with Acronyms

It’s a fair assumption that the first letter of each word in the spelled-out version of an acronym—an all-caps abbreviation formed by initial letters—should also be capitalized, and that’s true if the acronym represents an organization, such as “FDA” (for “Food and Drug Administration”), or a proper noun, such as “NYC” (for “New York City”). However, if a spelled-out term comprises a series of common nouns, verbs, etc. (“laugh out loud,” “fear of missing out”) all of its letters should be lowercase, even when it immediately precedes its acronym.

In short, people are crazy for capitals, and it’s time to tone things down. Now that you understand the power of lowercase letters, go forth and use them! Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they can’t communicate your message.

Have a grammar question? Leave it in the comments below. 

 

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

454 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
385 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Do You Have to Be a Published Writer to Be a Great...
  • Chance - A Novel: Psychological Thriller by Carolyn M....
  • 5 Ways to Re-energize During the Mid NaNo Drag
  • 5 Things You Should Drop for NaNoWriMo
  • Ways you can achieve wellness of the body and mind
  • Navigating Uncertainty

Comments
  • Linda Kass

    I continue to learn from you, Annie. I've got some editing to do!

  • Guilty.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Thanks, Annie. I love your posts! I just corrected my bio on my website. :)

  • You wrote:  <<the United States is founded on unnecessary capitalization. >>

    When I first read this, Annie, I thought you were making a political double entendre about the U.S. being founded by unnecessary aggregation of wealth!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!

     

  • Mary L. Holden

    OK! (AP Style.) And okay (Chicago?) As an editor, I see "caps" running wild all over the place! Thanks for this post...now I must go study italics and how they are used!

  • Sue Y Wang

    I did a ton of resume critiques as a career counselor. I was used to names, titles in caps. Recently my editor reviewed my manuscript and un-capped several terms, i.e. job title, degrees. Glad there is total resonance here. (She even printed from the Chicago Style Manual to show me.) Thank you for this article!

  • Suzanne Hoffman

    What about names of grape varietals e.g., nebbiolo, barbera....the Italians capitalize them. What's the rule there? 

  • Cynthavi Love

    What an enjoyable and useful article. A couple follow-up questions, please. For a military title: If the person's first name is included, is the title still lowercase? (e.g., Major John F. Miller or major John F. Miller) For food names: I ask because I am frequently sharing typed recipes. Will the name be lowercase when referring to a published recipe title? (e.g., Black Bean And Corn Salsa or black bean and corn salsa) Thanks for your coaching -- I want to get it right!

  • Gerry Miller

    This is SO well written and is helpful to me!  I am sharing on FB.  Many thanks!

  • Susie Klein

    I have the same question as Allison. How does capitalization work for article titles? Thanks for the helpful post. 

  • Thank you so much for this educational post. Do you mind helping me learn how to write an article title correctly? Mainly, when to capitalize what word in a title? Thank you very much!

  • D. Wright Downs

    Also capitalize army when referring to the US Army. This per the AP Style Book.  I learned this years ago when I was a journalist in the Army.