Avoid Capital Offenses When Using Job Titles

By Mark Nichol

When it comes to mechanical aspects of writing, few details seem to trip writers up as much as capitalization: when to use uppercase letters, and when to use lowercase letters.

Specific job titles preceding a person’s name are capitalized, but descriptions are not. For example, “Marketing Director John Doe” is correct, but “Marketing Chief John Doe” is not, unless “marketing chief” is John Doe’s actual title. After a name, titles are lowercase regardless of whether they are specific or general: “John Doe, marketing director at ABC Industries.”

If you modify even a specific job title, such as noting that someone no longer holds a position, what appears to be specific becomes an apposition, part of a job description rather than a title: “former marketing director John Doe.”

Some style guides disregard this last rule, and some publications choose to capitalize “president” when referring to the head of state even when the word appears in isolation from the title holder’s name, but this is an unnecessary nicety. Likewise, ordinary job titles in isolation are never capitalized. For example, the job title in “The park ranger asked for our permit” is a mere description, and needs no emphasis.

Job titles are at times absurdly attenuated, and placing them before a person’s name can wear readers out. Confronted with a magnificent moniker like “Oracle Principal Product Manager for Windows Technologies John Doe,” relax the identification a bit: “John Doe, Oracle’s principal product manager for Windows technologies” (the proper name Windows remains capitalized even after the name), is a gentler approach.

Capitalization of job titles and general descriptions alike is permitted in direct address — when you are writing to someone (or transcribing a speech directed at them) and using the title or description in place of a name: “That’s an order, Sergeant”; “I’ll get right on it, Chief.”

Capitalize formal and informal family-relationship labels, too, as in “If only Father were here” and “I’ll tell Mom!” but not in “Wait until your father gets home!” or “I saw your mom yesterday.” Terms of endearment aren’t capitalized, either: “I’ll get it, dear.”

Most terms of respect are capitalized (“I object, Your Honor”), but “sir” or “ma’am”/”miss” are not (unless you are addressing a letter or an email, in which case you should write “Dear Sir” or the equivalent).

The take-away about titles: Capitalization is seldom called for. Unless you’re using a person’s exact job title, and only the job title, immediately before that person’s name, chances are you shouldn’t capitalize it.

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14 Responses to “Avoid Capital Offenses When Using Job Titles”

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the reminder. I also read that if a title appears after the word ‘the’ in a sentence you shouldn’t capitalize it. Is this true?

  • K.P.Janardhanan

    In a correspondence if I have to quote messages from another letter or from a book, how the quotation is to be separated from the main body of my letter, is it by using a quotation mark (“) at the beginning and end of the quote?
    And, is it required to use capital letter when starting a sentence in a quotation?

    Another doubt I am having is, after one quote is over, I may continue writing what I have to transmit, and if I have to quote again and again intermittently how can the receiver differentiate the quotations from my own words; what I have to do for this?

  • Andrew Toynbee

    Very useful article, thank you! Particularly as I am currently reviewing my Second Draft which happens to be packed full of doctors (Doctor Winter) and paramedics (Junior Paramedic Sara Finn) plus mothers, fathers and brothers.
    Did I get all that right?

  • Stevie Godson

    Thanks for this one, Mark. I can’t understand why it’s so hard for so many people to grasp. As senior revise sub-editor for a daily newspaper in South Africa, I am required to “police” style, update our style guide, etc.
    I have to explain the difference between specific job titles and job descriptions over and over again – really irritating when new reporters/sub-editors arrive.
    I find that using a doctor as an example is the easiest way to explain. He is Dr John Doe but he is also South African doctor John Doe, for example.
    We differ on a few other rules – we don’t capitalise formal and informal family relationships, for example, but the rest is pretty much the same.
    Oh, and as you probably see, we follow UK English spellings, etc.

  • Mark Nichol

    Rebecca:

    “Thank you for the reminder. I also read that if a title appears after the word ‘the’ in a sentence you shouldn’t capitalize it. Is this true?”

    I’ve never read this rule, which comes at the problem from another direction. It’s true, but whether it is helpful is doubtful. Some publications refer to “the novelist John Doe” (where novelist is a temporary epithet — in other words, a description here and now for the person in question), but you’re unlikely to find them mentioning “the marketing director Jane Roe.”

    What you will see is “the marketing director, Jane Roe,” or “Jane Roe, the marketing director.” Obviously, neither of those is a job title; each is a job description.

    The simplest, most precise rule about whether to capitalize a job title is to do so only if it is the exact wording, if it appears immediately before a name, and if it is not itself preceded by a qualifier (former, for example) or an article (a, an, the) or followed by a comma.

  • Mark Nichol

    Andrew:

    “Very useful article, thank you! Particularly as I am currently reviewing my Second Draft which happens to be packed full of doctors (Doctor Winter) and paramedics (Junior Paramedic Sara Finn) plus mothers, fathers and brothers.

    “Did I get all that right?”

    Yes, but “right” is relative. Your capitalization is technically correct — though “Second Draft” is rather grandiose — but attaching the capitalized title Doctor to a name after the first reference seems an affectation suitable only for rural or period fiction or for literary nonfiction (such as a magazine profile in which the writer mirrors local custom by always referring to a beloved small-town physician as “Doctor Smith”).

    It’s technically correct to refer to “Doctor John Smith” on first reference, but in nonfiction, “John Smith, chief surgeon at . . .” tells readers that Smith is a doctor and provides additional detail the writer wants them to know, and in this case, the insertion of Doctor before the name is redundant. In fiction, similarly, let the narrative context identify the character’s profession.

    Also, not to denigrate paramedics, but specifying the technical employment level of an ambulance angel seems superfluous. Why not just “paramedic Sara Finn”? If you want to specify “junior paramedic” to reveal that the character is a novice, I’d still lowercase the term, even if it’s on her business card.

  • Peter

    In short: capitalize anything you’re using as a proper name. A person’s actual name is obvious, but also a job title or description when it’s standing in for a name (e.g., “I’ll get right on it, Chief”; “Doing it now, Boss”, “I’ll let Mom know”), etc.

    “Marketing Director John Doe” has the form of a name (that just happens to contain his actual name as a part of it), but it’s unusual to refer to people that way except at first mention in a newspaper/magazine article. Seeing “Junior Paramedic Sara Finn” in a book would be odd.

    You could have “the” as part of a name (think “the Bard”…or “the Doctor” (Dr Who), etc.), but it’s either a nickname or a particular unique holder of the title, etc., never just a job.

  • Mark Nichol

    K.P.:

    “In a correspondence if I have to quote messages from another letter or from a book, how the quotation is to be separated from the main body of my letter, is it by using a quotation mark (“) at the beginning and end of the quote? And, is it required to use capital letter when starting a sentence in a quotation?

    “Another doubt I am having is, after one quote is over, I may continue writing what I have to transmit, and if I have to quote again and again intermittently how can the receiver differentiate the quotations from my own words; what I have to do for this?”

    Yes, simply enclose someone else’s speech or writing in quotation marks, and repeat as needed between your own words. For excerpts of more than one paragraph, do not use the close quotation mark until the end of the last paragraph, but use the open mark at the beginning of each one. (See, for example, the copy of your comment in this comment, above.)

    Capitalize the first word of a quotation if the quotation is itself at least one complete sentence. You can also embed a partial quotation consisting of an incomplete sentence in a framing sentence, as in “She said that high-stakes testing would ‘devastate our educational system.'” Here, of course, you wouldn’t capitalize the first word. (Note that the partial quote appears enclosed in single quotation marks because my example is bracketed by double quotes.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Stevie:

    “I have to explain the difference between specific job titles and job descriptions over and over again – really irritating when new reporters/sub-editors arrive.”

    As a veteran copy editor — that’s the American English term for sub-editor — I feel your pain about endlessly explaining what seems obvious and easy to you. Unfortunately, it seems that many reporters are good at shaping an article but not so knowledgeable or diligent about applying specific style.

    It’s frustrating but forgivable that novice reporters won’t know this rule, but experienced writers who make this type of error should be ashamed of themselves. And there’s no excuse for a sub-editor, no matter how new to the job, not to know this basic style.

  • Sarah Turner

    Nine times out of ten clients ask me to go back and capitalise their job titles and the departments they work in. So we end up with “Lucy Smith the Receptionist who works in Reception and John Higgins, Junior Account Manager in Marketing.” So ugly. But I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle on this one!

  • Mark Nichol

    Sarah:

    “Nine times out of ten clients ask me to go back and capitalise their job titles and the departments they work in. So we end up with “Lucy Smith the Receptionist who works in Reception and John Higgins, Junior Account Manager in Marketing.” So ugly. But I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle on this one!”

    Yes, this is one of the many perils of working in corporate communications. There seems to be something in the air — perhaps a chemical emanating from the cubicle plastic, or perhaps the photocopier toner is the culprit — that makes people want to aggrandize simple little job titles with initial caps regardless of placement. Unfortunately, it’s the visual equivalent of a trumpet fanfare — or a blast on a kazoo.

  • M.Hewitt

    I would like to thank just about all of you for the wonderful guide lines and encouragement to ” Say what I mean, and mean what I say”

    I’m a habitual offender of punctuation and grammar skills. This does not mean that I do not appreciate a beautifully written sentence. I thirst for this kind of effect anytime I open up one of my social networks and see nothing but, LOL, BTW, ROTFLMAO. What are we saying to our future generations? I believe that this is only encouraging the slaughter of the American Language as we once knew it.

    Thank You for being here.

  • Dolly

    I would like to ask a question. 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?

    Thank you,

  • Mark Nichol

    Dolly:

    See the comments above yours, especially Sarah Turner’s.

    In legal documents, descriptive terms for entities such as Plaintiff or Corporation have traditionally been capitalized to emphasize that they refer to specific entities and not, for example, any plaintiff or corporation in general. This usage—in a context that does not justify that rationale—apparently spilled over into the corporate world at one time and became entrenched.

    It is “OK” to capitalize job titles as you have shown (or terms such as “Standard Operating Procedures” or “Workflow”), but I can’t think of a good reason to do so (except, in the case of the terms in the parentheses, as document headings), 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 his or her role.

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