A Capital Choice: The Joys and Nuances of Capitalisation

There are lots of good articles out there on capitalisation including this one by my friend and professional colleague Julian Maynard-Smith.

Why make room for another in the packed internet content stall?

The answer is that, of all the style conundrums, whether or not to capitalise is one of the trickiest and most intractable, especially in the grey areas.

And one that is evolving rapidly. Internet anyone? Only a short while ago capital ‘I’ was the norm: no longer.

So I have no shame adding the Prism-Clarity view to the capitalisation fray. There are so many idiosyncrasies that it might be empowering to know that we can in some circumstances even if others don’t or we feel we shouldn’t.

I will follow the approach I have used for other style conundrums: Always Never Sometimes.

Always

First, to be clear, by ‘capitalise’ here I mean start a word with a capital initial – not capitalise a whole word or phrase LIKE THIS. That style is now unheard of, except for very occasional emphasis, notably in literary style, where occasional SHOUTING IS OK and will not cause your reader to swipe left.

The standard rules are to always capitalise:

  • At the start of a sentence, including at the start of a syntactically complete sentence in a quote.
  • A true proper noun: a name; a specific geographic location; a day, month, festival or holiday; the title of a creative work, specific legal or regulatory instrument; an historical event or period.
  • Brands and tradenames.
  • Courses of study.
  • The pronoun ‘I’.
  • Where not doing so would create a different meaning to the one you intend (especially with capitonyms – words that change their meaning when capitalised, e.g. Hamlet, Apple or August).

Donald Trump spent his August break in the White House, Washington DC, writing his Penguin book Our Fake Age, but I had to tell him, ‘Sorry, compared to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act it’s unreadable.’

Some additional ad hoc examples of cases where you would usually capitalise, courtesy of New Hart’s Rules:

  • Ships, aircraft and vehicles: Titanic, Airbus, Mini Cooper.
  • Names including a letter or number: Room A or Route 66.
  • Proper noun-derived adjectives where there is a very close association with the proper noun source: Brussels sprouts or Japanese spitz.

In general, beyond these examples, think carefully about not capitalising.

My Prism-Clarity rule of thumb is if it looks OK without a capital it is probably OK. Go by appearance and instinct as much as any so-called rules, even the ones in the rest of this blog. But be consistent.

Never

Never capitalise an ordinary or common noun – unless it’s a very specific manifestation of that thing, which you actively want to draw attention to.

The City; the West; the Bank of England

A city like London; the sun sets in the west; any old bank

In particular, avoid capitalising common nouns you think need to be capitalised just because they’re somehow ‘important’ and need the emphasis that capitalisation provides; unless they’re particular named instances of the thing. This is a bad habit and very common in business and finance.

Official or semi-official words like committee, governance, policy, technology, process, minister, executive, regulation, business, finance and insurance are prime instances of this tendency. As Julian says in his blog it looks unprofessional and even ignorant.

And, as in the Always section, never capitalise a capitonym if doing so would create a different meaning to the one you intend.

Sometimes

Julian quotes a neat rule of thumb in his blog. If you can put an indefinite article (‘a’ or ‘an’) before the word you’re using – and if it still makes sense in that context – then it almost certainly does not need a capital.

I went to the (a) () bank today and took out some notes with (a) () Queen Elizabeth’s face on them

Beyond that, below are some examples of the many grey areas on this topic.

Titles and headings

You can capitalise every word in a title or heading: this is called Title Case.

The Joys And Nuances Of Capitalisation

Or you can use Smart Title Case which demotes smaller less important words to lower-case (other than the first word, of course) but retains capitals for important words:

The Joys and Nuances of Capitalisation

Or you can use Sentence case: just treating your title or heading as a normal sentence and thus only capitalising proper nouns and the like.

The joys and nuances of capitalisation

As always with this kind of styling, consistency trumps all other approaches and variables.

Abbreviations

Many abbreviations are routinely capitalised:

NHS (National Health Service); EU (European Union); LSE (London Stock Exchange)

But not all, or totally:

mph (miles per hour); plc (public limited company); PhD (doctor of philosophy)

As in the last example above, even if an abbreviation is capitalised that does not mean you have to capitalise the fully spelled out version.

To improve his graphical user interfaces (GUIs) in close of business (COB) reporting he used a three letter abbreviation (TLA) whenever he could

And – as I have done there – if the abbreviation is pluralised it is perfectly correct to have the plural ‘s’ in lower case after the capitalised abbreviation.

A little diversion on abbreviations while I’m on the subject. [I’ve sometimes come across this in editing work.] If an abbreviation starts with a consonant – and has an indefinite article (‘a’ or ‘an’) in front of it – the decision on which article to use goes on the phonetic read of the abbreviation not the fully spelled out version:

An MCC member () not a MCC member ()

unless the abbreviation is usually spelled out in speech despite appearing as an abbreviation:

I am writing a MS (manuscript) () not an MS ()

Job titles and organisational constructs

These are the ones which in my experience cause most angst, and waste most time being deliberated. All I can say is be consistent. Make a note in your Individual Style Guide and think nothing more of it – that’s the typically pragmatic Prism-Clarity position.

The Prime Minister (); the prime minister ()

Risk Management department (); risk management department ()

Colons and lists

You can capitalise after a colon: This is especially true if you’re American and the content after the colon is a complete sentence. Typically you wouldn’t do this if you were British.

You can capitalise the first letter of each entry in a numbered or bulleted list but it’s not mandatory.

Hart in the right place

There’s lots more.

As always on this kind of topic, a short blog simply cannot do it justice and for more detail I refer you to the greater authority of New Hart’s Rules.

Even more than usual I would love to hear from anyone who violently or even mildly disagrees with any of the contentions I have made in this short blog: it is such an idiosyncratic area that there is plenty of room for polite or even impolite disagreement.