Avoid Gratuitous Capitalization

By Mark Nichol

As an editor, I devote much of my time and energy to helping a writer bring out the best in his or her prose, but a lot of effort also goes into minor but nagging errors — unnecessary capitalization among them.

Long after the Roman alphabet was developed, only one form existed: the capital form. Along the way, a parallel form, known as lowercase developed. (The term lowercase derives from the fact that stamps for printing letters using this style were kept in rows of cases located below those housing the uppercase, or capital, letters.) Now, capital letters are used in a limited number of functions: primarily, for the first letter of the first word in a sentence or of a proper noun, and for denoting acronyms and initialisms.

Unfortunately, many amateur writers, and a number of professionals, clutter their writing with gratuitous capitalization because of a misunderstanding of — or a disregard for — orthographic conventions. For example, many people do not realize that when the name of an entity such as an organization is reduced to one word, that word is generally treated without initial capitalization, as in “the association” (not “the Association”) as shorthand for “the American Automobile Association.”

One complication is something that can be blamed on institutional pride, as when a university’s literature describes how “the University’s student-life environment is very rich” or on corporate branding efforts, as in “the Company is here to serve your needs.” Such gratuitous capitalization is entrenched in traditional legal writing (for example, “the Plaintiff’s claim is upheld”), but both in that context and in general prose it is distracting.

Whenever you’re tempted to capitalize a word, specific to your field of interest or endeavor, that is not a proper noun, check its treatment in the lay literature — books, nonscholarly periodicals, newspapers, and websites. Often, you’ll find that the word is treated generically, and I hope that you’ll realize that unless the word is strictly a proper noun, there’s no justification for aggrandizing it with an initial capital letter.

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17 Responses to “Avoid Gratuitous Capitalization”

  • Joeth Barlas

    As a technical writer employed to describe a company’s products, I have to report that most corporations require you to capitalize excessively. As you mention, it’s a branding thing. House style often requires that not only the product name (a legitimate proper noun), but every product feature be branded with initial caps or “CamelCaps.” It’s a slippery slope that ends with many nouns (and even certain adjectives) enshrined in uppercase.

  • Androo

    Spot on.

  • thebluebird11

    In the world of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, not only is the first letter of the drug or product capitalized, but the entire word/name will be capitalized on the manufacturer’s website. It’s confusing, because you don’t know which way the company has trademarked the name, and whether you MUST capitalize the whole name, or just the initial letter, or even if CamelCaps are appropriate. (I happen to like CamelCaps for combo-type words because often it helps dispel doubt as to the origin and intention of the name or word, and prevent confusion or misinterpretation).

    Here is an example from the website of AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of Crestor: “CRESTOR is not right for everyone. Do not take CRESTOR if you are nursing, pregnant or may become pregnant; have liver problems; or have had an allergic reaction to CRESTOR.” It says CRESTOR is a registered trademark, but exactly how is it trademarked? Is it in all caps or initial cap only? Who knows? On regular websites, only the first letter is capitalized.

  • Jamie

    I’m a bit confused on why you couldn’t say “the Association” when you’re referring to the acronym to employees of said association. For example, I’ve completed an employee handbook for my township. In the handbook, I initially refer to the township as “XX Township (referred to as “Township” from this point forward)” as an understanding that “Township” is the only one. Am I wrong then?

    I’ve used the following statements:

    “All township employees…” and “The policies of the Township apply to all employees.” Should I rewrite the latter sentence to be “The policies of the township apply to all employees?” (And would the “?” go after the parentheses or as is?)

  • Jean Kearsley

    “Along the way, a parallel form, known as lowercase developed”? The only justification for the second comma in the sentence would be as the first of what should have been two commas setting off the parenthetical expression “known as lowercase.” However, in so short a sentence, even that punctuation seems superfluous.

  • readingprof

    The overuse of capitalization that I most dislike is its improper use for emphasis. Announcements, memoranda, emails, flyers, and ads are filled with examples: “Announcing a Sale next tomorrow from 10-5”; “There will be a Meeting of the Homeowners in the Lobby on Monday evening”; “We are asking Members of the club to volunteer to help with the annual Fundraiser.”

  • Phil Radler

    Arbitary CapiTALization hAs GoT tO sTOp! It’s more than just distracting, or peculiar, or annoying; in standard English, it’s plain wrong.
    This error induces some of the most strident conflicts I encounter when editing; people can’t seem to distinguish between something that is appropriately capitalized due to a well-defined set of rules, and something they want to capitalize because it’s “important.” (Sorry, folks, but that ain’t the rule.) Bill Walsh has a marvelous rant on the topic in his book, “Lapsing into a Comma”; a version also appears here: http://www.theslot.com/arbitrary.html. I commend it to the attention of anyone who is interested in producing well-crafted prose.

  • venqax

    AMEN. I mean, Amen. The first was just for emphasis. So probably NOT correct. As a prof who reads a lot of undergrad-level writing, I would say that random capitalization is the single most common systemic error I see. I don’t know why that is. Is is something spell-checks or grammar-checks don’t catch? Is it over-familiarity with the Declaration of Independence and other 18th Century Literature (i really, really don’t think so)?

    readingprof: “Announcing a Sale next tomorrow from 10-5″; Is the term “next tomorrow” an idiom I’m not familiar with, or simply a typo? Does it mean, e.g., a week from tomorrow? Genuine question, not being a smartarse, promise!

  • JiminAZ

    My first jobs out of college–I was an English major with writing emphasis–were professional positions in which I did a good deal of writing. Being the new kid on the block, I was looked upon as a trainee. So . . . every dad-gummed person in the organization with a college degree was given my work to–ready?–edit for clarity, accuracy, good grammar, proper punctuation, and so forth. So naturally, everyone made certain their own titles, functions, and interests were capitalized ad nauseum.

    Joe Blow, senior accounts administrator, became, Joe Blow, Senior Accounts Administrator. Joe Blow’s responsibility in foods and resources administration because, “Joe Blow’s responsibility is in Foods And Resources administration where tracks Food Resources, Fuels, Business And Office Supplies, Furniture, Furnishings, And Construction. He is quite a busy buy in Dental, Emergency Room, Surgical, Medical Library and Social Services.

    These decades later, every one of those people are dead and buried under the concrete flooring of the new wing, a silver bullet AND wooden stake through their hearts, a silver cross hammered into their foreheads. (At least they are, in my dreams and druthers.) And I hope when St. Peter stops them at the gates and handed them the entry application and forms, he yelled at them, “Hey, stupid! What’s with all the capitalization?”

  • Mark Nichol

    Jean:

    The erroneously unaccompanied comma is an error.

  • Mark Nichol

    Jamie:

    There’s no good reason to capitalize township on its own. Yes, you’re referring to a specific township, but you’re describing it with a generic noun, not with a partial name.

  • Mark Nichol

    thebluebird11:

    Yes, cue the eye-rolling for all-caps branding. Unless you’re an employee of the pharmco that produces CRESTOR, or a (yuk) strategic partner, write it Crestor.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Phil Radler, et al:
    I cannot agree more! Arbitrary CapiTALization hAs GoT tO sTOp!

    Also, there are so many people who have been consumed by “cultural relativism”, or whatever, that they cannot digest the statement, “It is plain wrong.” Yes, there are right ways and wrong ways to do things.

    In my case, I have taught a lot of college courses in several different technical areas, including mathematics. I have told my students “This is the way that it is done: this is the rule.” I have had some wiseacres comment “Rules are made to be broken.” I replied that I am the boss, I am the professor, I make the rules, and if you want to defy them, you are doing so to your own detriment.
    In other words, “You are taking your life into your own hands,” speaking figuratively, of course.

    That is the problem that we face in people who wish to “do as they please” concerning language, mathematics, science, technology, etc.
    At least in my case, they chose the wrong authority to try to push around.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree that the statement “Announcing a Sale next tomorrow from 10-5” is astonishingly bad.

    It also makes me wonder if there is some kind of typographical error here, a completely missing word, or perhaps missing punctuation.

    Here is one of several possible corrections, depending on what was really meant – and that is the puzzle:
    “Announcing a Sale, next, tomorrow from 10 through 5”.
    That is still a poor way to state it, but an improvment.
    D.A.W.

  • Matt Gaffney

    The most annoying and most frequently occurring misuse of capitalization that I’ve encountered for more than fifty years is by bureaucrats, PR folks, and journalists referring to Federal, State, County, and City officials rather than federal, state, county, and city officials. Whenever I read such nonsense, I would close my eyes and imagine young children shuffling about in their parents’ shoes, dresses, and coats, pretending to be adults; orthographic uppitiness.

  • Phil Radler

    To Dale Wood and Matt Gaffney: Well said. Rules are like train tracks. You still get to choose where you’re going and how quickly you want to get there, but the rails keep you from sliding into a ditch that someone else has already explored and found unpleasant. I once had a client insist that I go back and restore all the caps I took out during a three-hour editing stint. Don’t work for them anymore . . .

  • Mark Nichol

    JiminAZ:

    Your note has been entered into the DailyWritingTips.com Comment Hall of Fame. It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking something as I read it.

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