Capitalizing Titles of People and Groups

By Maeve Maddox

Katie Williams writes:

I would like to  see a post about capitalization, such as when is it proper to capitalize people’s titles, and when would you capitalize the name of a group (i.e. Board of Directors)  – is “Board” always capitalized when you are referring to the group?

A person’s title is capitalized when it precedes the name and is therefore seen as part of the name:

President Lincoln
Bishop Sheen

Once the title occurs, further references to the person holding the title appear in lowercase:

the president
the bishop

The name of a group is capitalized when it is the full name:

the Department of Comparative Literature
the Board of Directors of Acme Industries

Further references will be written in lowercase:

the department
the board

Promotional materials frequently capitalize words like University and Board every time they occur.

Generally speaking, the use of capitals should be minimized as much as possible. In the absence of a company style guide, the best practice is to choose a style guide for yourself. I refer to several, including the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style.

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11 Responses to “Capitalizing Titles of People and Groups”

  • kirc

    Another good topic covered, Maeve! Good job!

    How about when we’re dealing with college courses? Do we always capitalize the name of the course? For instance, Bachelor of Science in Business Administration major in Marketing

  • Eleanor K. Sommer

    You forgot to mention my pet peeve as an editor! People capitalizing professional positions or titles after a name, e.g., Jane Smith, President of ABC company; or Joe Brown, Secretary. These title should be lower case.

    And I have a related question: World Wide Web is a proper noun, and as such I have for years as an editor honored that along with many of my colleagues, correcting web to Web, and maintaining “site” separate from “Web,”i.e., “Web site.”

    However, I now perceive this is a losing battle and I am about ready to succumb and let my clients (many of them university professors) use “web” and “website.” One actually insists I make this change in her work.

    Any thoughts on this?

  • Precise Edit

    Great reminders, Maeve. This echoes the principle that words used as proper names, or parts of proper names, are capitalized. This is why we write “President Obama speaks clearly” and “the president speaks clearly.”

    This also applies to “mom,” “dad,” and other names for relations, as discussed in “Capitalizing Mom and Dad”: http://300daysofbetterwriting.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/capitalizing-mom-and-dad/. Capitalization rules are consistent, so we write “I gave Mom a flower” and “My mom loves flowers.” To confirm this, we can substitute a person’s name for “mom” to see if “mom” is being used as a proper name.

    @Eleanor
    We use “website” (one word, lowercase) and “the Web” or “the World Wide Web” (capitalized as a proper noun). We also use “Internet” or “Interweb” (both capitalized) as the proper name for the electronic data transmission network. My pet peeve is “internet” (lowercase). The debate on this continues….

    @Kirk: I would capitalize the name of a course, as in “I am teaching ‘The Essentials of Writing Mechanics’ on Thursday.” On the other hand, I would not capitalize the name for a subject, topic, or field of study, as in “I am teaching a course on writing.” However, if the subject name is a proper name, I would capitalize it, as in “I am teaching English courses for the university,” but I wouldn’t capitalize “physics” in “I am teaching physics courses for the university.”

    This is a timely topic! Right now, I’m discussing with a client the capitalization of “Union” and “Confederate” as they refer to the opposing sides in the Civil War. For example, the client prefers “the Union soldiers” and “the confederate army.”

  • Big Steve

    I like your site, but your explanation is a little unclear. You say “President Obama” should be capped, and you say “further references” should not. What does that mean? Your examples are not enough. Does “further references” only refer to your example, “the president?” Or does it refer to all situations, even “President Obama?” How about if the first instance is “the president?” Should that be capped? How about if the second instance is identical to the first? Should both be capped — or neither — or just the first one?

  • Joanne

    Anyone want to weigh in on this:

    In my work of fiction, I have a father and son. I want to use “senior” to refer to day, but all references to how to capitalize this are more along the lines of the correct way to write the name on a document, letter, etc. I want to know how to capitalize/punctuate the “senrio” in sentences. For example,

    “Surely George, Sr. had stashed a flashlight or a few candles…”

    vs.

    “Surely George Senior had stashes a flashlight or a few candles…”

    Any opinions? I’m leaning toward “a”. My only discomfort with that is whether it will cause the reader to stumble.

  • Joanne

    Er, to refer to the DAD (not day). A pox upon me.

  • Joanne

    And “senior” (not “senrio”). Sorry – there is something happening down the hall that is totally distracting me.

  • marianne

    I am running across a government agency that refers to people in positions, and I don’t know whether to capitalize their positions. For example, “As Director, you…” I don’t capitalize it when it is used as follows: “As a director, you…”

    Are these examples the correct way to capitalize the position held?

  • michelle

    I understand you are not supposed to capitalize titles when they follow a name, but is this still true when you are listing things out? It looks strange.

    Here’s an example:
    John Smith, president, ABC International
    Jane Smith, senior director, DEF Corporation

    Thanks!

  • Mary Jane Cummings

    I disagree with “Precise Edit” about initialing capitalization. Regarding “President” versus “the president”. When referring to a particular president, it would be, for example, President Obama or the President or our President. When referring to a president whose name you don’t know, it’s lowercase. Basically, the determination is whether it’s a general president or a certain named individual . The same rule applies to “state” versus “state”. You capitalize “State” when you are referring to a particular state as in State of California even when it doesn’t say California–everywhere you refer to the State of California, you initially capitalize “State”. This differentiates it from some other state. However, when referring to the federal government, there is only one, so “federal” is lowercase. Example: California has a law against child abuse. The State passed this law long after it passed a law against animal abuse, and federal government laws have been enacted as well. A lot of people don’t understand this principle and write “State and Federal Government” together. Remember, the English language and its rules change all the time. I think we should do away with apostrophes because most people don’t get when to use them. Happy writing!

  • Jody GIbson

    Second references, when still referring to a singular person such as President Obama, requires the use of President and/or President Obama with following references. Much of this depends upon who your audience is, for example, if you’re writing for publication by the media, get an AP Style handbook and follow their title and punctuation, etc. guidelines. Businesses may lean more toward Chicago’s Manual of Style.

    For the most part, less is more. Less capitalization, punctuation, etc. when writing for the media. Most “titles” are really just the name of the person’s job. Only actual titles like Governor So-and-so or Reverend Marshall are capped; “job” are not — farmer Joh Brown. If the reference to one’s position comes after the name, it is rarely if ever capitalized in AP Style, but your company might have a style guide on how titles should be written and when they are capitalized. It’s difficult when you edit for a multitude of departments, as the communications department likely follows AP Style while the events staff and company foundation if you have one probably follow Chicago MOS. Again, consider your audience and then choose what works best. I google often to decide what word to use, or when to capitalize, or how to punctuate something I’m unsure about, and there are a few great sites for reference online that I typically agree with, but the style manuals are invaluable guides.

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