Down with capitalism!

If you’re tempted to capitalize every other word to make it look serious, don’t.

Caps do have their place: use them for people, places, ships’ names, book titles, and so on, as well as some nicknames and colloquial terms (the Sun King, the South Seas). But if you are tempted to sprinkle caps everywhere, your documents will begin to look a bit like an illiterate ransom note or a presidential tweet. For instance, when an online bio tells me that Fred ‘studied Mechanics at University’, I wonder if he also ‘talked about Baseball in a Shop’, or ‘went for a Swim in a River’. Caps are usually wrong when the usage is non-specific.

It’s a whole different matter, however, if Fred studied at Exeter University, or swam in the River Po, because we’ve now added proper nouns.

So far, so obvious, perhaps – but a more confusing situation can crop up with capitalized group nouns. Here’s a common example:

Jemima is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. She normally attends the committee’s weekly meetings.

Tempting as it is to capitalise ‘committee’ in the second line, you should resist doing so, because here the word is unqualified by any proper noun/noun group. Similarly, capitalize your college’s Board of Trustees if you absolutely must, but don’t refer to ‘the Board’, or to ‘Trustees’ or ‘Members’ – these should all be lowercase.

Here are some other examples, drawn from my trusted bible, the Chicago Manual of Style:

National Labor Relations Board; the board
Census Bureau; the bureau
Chicago Board of Education; the board of education

Let’s look at some other examples.

Academic qualifications are usually lowercase when spelt out:

    • Scott has a bachelor’s degree in Greek history from the University of Oxford.
    • Sheila has a BSc* in cellular biology and a master’s in marketing.

Uppercase is appropriate in specific usage, such as a named professorship:

    • Marama is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Aberdeen.

*Note: Abbreviated degrees can be written in various ways (Americans, for instance, usually include full stops), but you do need to be consistent. A few examples follow.

bachelor of science      B.Sc.           BSc
bachelor of arts            B.A.            BA
doctor of philosophy   Ph.D.         PhD
doctor of letters            D.Litt.        DLitt 

Vocational/company titles are capped in specific usage . . .

    • That looks painful! I’d go see Doctor Wu about it;

. . . but lowercase when we’re being generic:

    • Pete is chairperson of the board of directors;
    • Jenny is our new managing director;
    • I’m an accountant, not a doctor.

Civic, honorific, religious, military titles are, similarly, capped in specific usage:

    • I once met Princess Grace;
    • We take our orders from General Powell;

. . . but lowercase when generic:

    • Today I’m hoping to meet the queen, the pope, and at least four bishops.
    • Sue is determined to be the next prime minister.
    • The general is in a filthy mood this morning.

Names of organisations, institutions and bodies are similarly lowercase when generic, but of course capped when specific.

  • Mike works for Auckland Council. His sister is at New Zealand Post.
  • Sarah no longer works for the council; she’s now at the post office.
  • He used to hold a university position, but now is a government man.

There will, of course, be curveballs. If your department has a bespoke Quality Management System, then caps may be justified. If you’re talking about your broad professional interest in quality management systems, use lowercase.

Historic terms and periods are lowercase:

  • I was born in the sixties [or the 1960s].
  • They cling to nineteenth-century attitudes.


Capitalization is a vast topic, so I’ll be doing more on it in later posts.