3 Questions About Emphasis

By Mark Nichol

The following questions from readers, and the responses, pertain to how words are formatted to provide emphasis.

1. When writing business documents such as Standard Operating Procedures or Workflow processes, my understanding has always been that you capitalize titles. An example of that would be “The Project Coordinator will send the Systems Architect the following information to begin the quoting process.” When you are describing a specific role in a business process, is it OK to capitalize the title?

In legal documents, descriptive terms for entities such as Plaintiff or Corporation have traditionally been capitalized to emphasize for the purposes of legal precision that they refer to specific entities and not, for example, any plaintiff or corporation in general. This usage apparently spilled over from the legal department into the rest of the corporate headquarters without question at one time and became entrenched.

It is “OK” to capitalize job titles as you have shown, but there’s no reason to do so, and it has a distracting, cluttering effect. I recommend reserving capitalization for when it provides clarity, as in communicating that a phrase before a person’s name is that person’s official job title, not just a description of or label for his or her role.

For that matter, though you may title a document “Standard Operating Procedures” or “Workflow,” in your first sentence, you are referring generically to the type of documents you are writing, not to specific documents so titled, so the terms should not be capitalized.

2. In a document in which personality characteristics are used to describe roles in our company, we are using labels like “The Champion” and “The Catalyst.” Is the way the labels have been formatted correct? [Editor’s note: The labels were not only capitalized and italicized but also styled in boldface in the reader’s email message.]

Several layers of emphasis have been used for these labels, which is redundant. Only one is necessary, and simple capitalization of the key terms is sufficient to indicate that you are naming well-defined roles. The article the should not be capitalized, however. (Nor should quotation marks be used to frame the labels in the actual document.)

3. I think that in the following sentence, infrastructure should be italicized, but my manager disagrees: “By infrastructure, we mean the company’s policies, internal activities, organization, reporting and systems related to managing risk.” Who’s right?

You are. For the same reason that infrastructure is italicized in your opening statement and here in my response—we’re both using the word to refer to the word itself, not to the phenomenon of infrastructure—it should be italicized in the example you gave: The sentence defines not the concept, but the word by which the concept is known.

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