Simple rules for capitalization

Correct capitalization is the bane of many a PR pro’s existence. Because capitalization use varies wildly from agency to agency, here are some rules to follow.

We writers and editors with years of experience in the corporate communications fun house all have stories about the crimes against the English language that we encounter. My latest crime story involves capitalization.

I have documents to edit filled with words that shouldn’t be capitalized—such as “federal,” “state,” “statutes,” “cyber,” “laws”—but are uppercase. I have documents to edit filled with words that should be capitalized—such as “West Texas” and “Supreme Court”—but are not.

When did random capitalization become acceptable? Why do people believe that capitalizing a word makes it more important? Capitalization rules have existed for centuries, so why aren’t they followed in corporate communications?

Let’s take a look at some of those rules.

1. Capitalizing a word when it should not be does not make it more important.

2. Capitalize the first word in a sentence.

This is the most basic rule of capitalization.

3. Capitalize the pronoun “I.”

Another basic one, but in today’s text-message driven world, it should be mentioned.

4. Capitalize proper nouns: the names of persons, places, organizations, and sometimes things.

For instance, “Seattle, Washington,” “Patrick O’Brien,” “Ragan Communications,” “Supreme Court.”

This seems to be the rule that trips up many people because they don’t know whether a word is a proper noun. But as the AP Stylebook states:

“Capitalize nouns that constitute the unique identification for a specific person, place, or thing: John, Mary, America, Boston, England. Some words, such as the examples given, are always proper nouns. Some common nouns receive proper noun status when they are used as the name of a particular entity: General Electric, Gulf Oil.”

There are also derivatives of proper nouns. Capitalize words that are derived from a proper noun and still depend on it for their meaning, such as “American,” “French,” and “Shakespearean.”

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Lowercase words derived from proper nouns in phrases that no longer depend on the proper noun for their meaning: “french fries,” “pasteurize.”

5. Capitalize family-relationship nouns when used as a part of proper nouns.

Capitalize the family designation in “Aunt Sarah,” and “Grandma Jesse,” but leave that family-relation noun lower case when it doesn’t refer to a person’s name. For instance, “We visit my cousin every Christmas.”

6. Capitalize titles that appear before names, but not after names.

Perhaps the greatest capitalization crime in corporate America. It’s “President Patrick O’Brian” and “Patrick O’Brian, president,” not “Patrick O’Brian, President.”

7. Capitalize directions used as part of names for sections of the country; North Texas, South Florida, but not as compass directions.

Capitalize “The Pacific Northwest” and “Central Texas,” but lowercase west in “We drove west for two hours.”

8. Capitalize the days of the week, the months of the year, and holidays, but not the seasons used generally.

However, seasons are capitalized when used as a proper title. Some examples:

  • “I will attend that conference in the fall.”
  • “I will study abroad in Spring Semester 2017.”
  • “We celebrate Valentine’s Day in July.”

9. Capitalize members of national, political, racial, social, civic, and athletic groups.

For instance, “Texas Longhorns,” “Libertarians,” “Chinese.”

10. Capitalize periods and events, but not century numbers.

So that would be “Great Depression,” and “first century.”

11. Capitalize trademarks.

Examples: “Honda,” “Coca-Cola,” “Apple.”

In the words of the AP Stylebook: “In general, avoid unnecessary capitals. Use a capital letter only if you can justify it by one of the principles listed here.”

Ragan readers, any advice on how to get others to follow these rules?

A regular contributor to Ragan.com and PR Daily, Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.

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