Ad and marketing creatives

Red Pen Diaries: Das Kapitalization

There it was again — a random capital. The offender was the "M" at the beginning of "Mother," as in "Her Mother was the first to notice she could really sing."

If it had been "Mother told me she thought I could really sing," it would have been fine and dandy because "Mother" would have been serving as a proper noun there, referring to a particular maternal figure. But when it's not standing in for a name, "mother" should not be capitalized.

I've recently seen the following capitalized for no reason: "high school" (in the same sentence as "middle school," which was not capitalized), "million," "mission," "federal," "program," "child," "metro area," "board of directors," "legislature," "alumni," "entertainment industry," "civic" and "downtown" (yes, I've been doing a lot of nonprofit reading).

As our friend Grammar Girl explains: "One mistake business writers often make is capitalizing words simply for emphasis or to augment their importance. Such errant capitalization happens frequently in press releases and other promotional materials. Hyperbole is no stranger in that realm. Nevertheless, it does not make your pork rinds crunchier and tastier if you capitalize the words 'Pork' and 'Rinds.'" (Mmm ... pork rinds.)

I think the tendency to over-capitalize is also a byproduct of the tendency to overcompensate. Since a lot of people simply don't know what should be capitalized, they believe that erring on the side of the capital is the conservative, and thus more likely to be correct, choice; they reason erroneously that it's best to play it safe and capitalize the word in question, thus conferring upon it the respect it might deserve.

I understand the cap confusion in some cases — a professional title preceding a proper name vs. a descriptor following a proper name and a comma, for instance: "Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs" as opposed to "Steve Jobs, chief executive officer of Apple." But I'm less sympathetic about this kind of thing: "Abundance and Prosperity is waiting for you to claim it, but it can't happen unless you tap into the Power that is within you. Since 1991 we have been connecting Entrepreneurs with the top Speakers, Business Mentors, Coaches and the Tools they need to create the business of their dreams."

What if the business of your dreams involves stamping out random capitalization? Even if it doesn't, why would you trust something as important as your business to someone who doesn't understand capitalization? The very notion shocks and saddens me. And now, in an effort to be the change I want to see in the world, some rules:

Capitalize proper nouns. Per the Associated Press Stylebook, my personal authority, proper nouns "constitute the unique identification for a specific person, place or thing": Julia Rubiner (person — yours truly), Glassell Park (place — location of our office), Editorial Emergency (thing — our copywriting agency). Under other circumstances, "editorial," "emergency" and "park" would not be capitalized no matter how important they may seem.

Capitalize the first word in a sentence. People who feel this isn't necessary in casual, i.e. digital, communication risk my ire.

Capitalize principal words in the titles of creative works: "Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History." In its entry on "composition titles," the AP adds, "including prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters." Oh, and always capitalize "is" in a title, since it's a verb form. (Someone recently stepped to me on this point. Needless to say, he drew back a bloody stump.) And always capitalize the last word of a title, even if it's a preposition or conjunction of fewer than four letters. Or you could play it safe and capitalize all the words in a title, as long as you do so consistently throughout whatever you're writing.

This is as good a place as any to note that when you "capitalize" a word, you merely render the first letter as a capital. When you capitalize every letter in a word, you're either emphasizing that word to bolster its meaning or, in digital discourse, shouting.

As you've likely guessed, the rules for capitalization are riddled with offshoots and exceptions. When in doubt, look it up in a reliable online dictionary or Google the word along with the search term "New York Times," a model of exemplary capitalization. (I do wonder how long the capitalization will remain on the verb form of Google.)

Rule of thumb: If you're asking yourself, "Should I capitalize this?" think of what my grandmother, a world traveler, used to say about packing: "If you're asking yourself, 'Do I need to pack this?' the answer is 'no.'" In other words, stick to lowercase. 'Tis a capital idea.

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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 8th 2010, 7:50 AM
Comment by: Suzanne K. (Guilford, CT)
Good points are made, especially capping the last word of a title. Query that has long puzzled me: in sixth paragraph, "Abundance and Prosperity is waiting for you to claim it,..." When it's a compound subject, don't you need the plural verb "are"? And if so, would you say " claim them"?

Thanks for your thoughts.

Suzanne Kelley
Monday November 8th 2010, 8:14 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
While our four seasons are not capitalised, English days and months still take capitals. I wonder if days and months have preserved their capital honours because so many of them owe their existence to emperors and gods? Would we deem it disrespectful to Thor, for example, if we demoted his day of the week to a humble 'thursday' instead of the more majestic 'Thursday'?

The French, of course, who have no respect for extrinsic authority, have consigned all these derivatives of emperors and gods to the ignominy of perpetual lower case existence.
Monday November 8th 2010, 2:26 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)
Good article about a subject that is continually difficult.

@ Suzanne — Good catch! (I think.)

I have great problems with titles, and would always capitalize "Steve Jobs, Chief Executive Officer of Apple." I'm glad you aren't as offended by this as by some of the other errors.

One standard that I try to impose in the ad hoc style guide we maintain for the lifestyle magazine of which I am Editor In Chief (note caps), is to capitalize the spelled out version of acronyms. E.g., "Steve Jobs was Apple's CEO (Chief Executive Officer)." I know some purists would disagree, but this just looks right to me. (After all, that's what these rules are about.... Making writing look right. Right?)
Monday November 8th 2010, 3:38 PM
Comment by: Heather B. (Tampa, FL)
I Agree, About "Overcompensation" ..... After All, If, I Get All Of The "Right" Word's Capitalized!.... Thats All That Matter's....... And It Works For Punctuation "Too".....,,
Monday November 8th 2010, 3:54 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
Great, I've been waiting for clarification of this vexed matter. For instance, would I capitalise Nuns, (as,say,in a religious order) or priest, bishop etc, (the same). I come across Doctor, but nurse is not deemed the same honour, and I wonder why. If referring to god in a divine capacity, might that be capitalised? An aunt is 'aunt', but what about Aunt Mary? I wonder too about Suzanne K's comment, should it not be 'are', or 'them'? Another one - 'where to park the car, in the Park, or park?' This might confuse a reader. 'Parking lot', obviously, but sometimes not so. A title: 'Time and Tides', or 'Time And Tides'?

Another - and she said while unpacking the box, 'where will I put these things?' Often I see a colon after 'box' and 'Where' is capitalised.

I could go on there are many more.
Monday November 8th 2010, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
She said, 'The first word of direct speech is always capitalised. However,' she continued, 'the first word in the continuation of a sentence in direct speech is not capitalised.'

I'm pretty sure that's right, but in matters of punctuation I always stand ready to be corrected. I admit it jars to use a cap after a comma, but the quote marks isolate the direct speech and demand independent punctuation. So the beginning of the sentence is capitalised and any continuation of the sentence is not. It makes sense when viewed like that.

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