As an editor, I encounter the same problems over and over again, regardless of the genre or the writer.
One persistent problem is random capitalization. Although this is common from writers of all kinds, I find it most often in business writing. I think it’s part of many corporate cultures, and the people who see and do this every day at work tend to make the same mistake in other kinds of writing as well.
When should you capitalize and when should put the whole word in lowercase?
- Names of people and places are almost always capitalized: Jane Doe, San Antonio, Texas. Follow the lead of the individual who lowercases part of his or her name (John de Paul).
- Titles are capitalized when they are used with the name—President Obama, but not when they are used generically—the president. Complete titles may be capitalized following the person’s name—John Smith, Chief Executive Officer, but not when used as a description—John Smith, the chief executive officer of the company.
- Respectful forms of address—Your Honor, Mr. President, Your Excellency—are always capitalized.
- Kinship names—mom, dad, aunt, grandmother—are lowercased unless they are used as part of or in place of a name: Mom, Uncle John, Grandma Sadie (when addressing or identifying the person by that name) but my mom, my uncle, and my grandma.
- Names of ethnic or national groups (Americans, Hispanics, African Americans) are capitalized, but colors (white, black) are lowercased.
- The names and titles of religious organizations, clergy, and books are capitalized, but generic descriptions are not: All Saints Anglican Church, the church, Pastor Joe, the pastor, The Holy Bible, holy book.
- Words like nature, science, success are not capitalized unless they are part of a name or title.
Organizations (corporations, nonprofits, and military) often over-use capitals. They typically capitalize every title down to the lowliest position, perhaps to make the people in those positions feel important. If you are writing something for an organization that follows this practice, you should, of course, follow the company style. However, if you are writing something outside the company, follow the style of the publication or group for whom you are writing. When in doubt, don’t capitalize.
Organizations often capitalize the name of every department, every program, every process…. The best way to determine if capitalizing a word or phrase is appropriate is to determine whether it is an actual name or title of something or simply a description. The Department of Science and Technology is capitalized if that is its actual name, but the science and technology department is not. Zero Defects Quality Control Program is capitalized if that is its proper name, but the quality control program is not.
If you’re not sure about whether to capitalize a word or phrase, ask yourself, “Is this an actual name or title of something?” If so, capitalize. If the word or phrase is just a description, begin the word(s) with lowercase letters.
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