Capitalization of Names of Academic Disciplines

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When do you capitalize a word or phrase that denotes an academic discipline? This post details the distinctions between these terms as proper nouns and as generic descriptions.

If you’re writing a résumé or a biographical blurb for yourself or someone else, or editing one, or you’re otherwise referring to an academic discipline, begin one or more words with uppercase or lowercase letters depending on whether the text pertains merely to the discipline itself or to an entity devoted to the discipline, such as a course, a department, or an institution. Note the following examples:

“My course load includes classes in French and astronomy,” but “My favorite classes last semester were French III and Introduction to Astronomy.”

“He obtained a degree in Asian studies,” but “He enrolled in the Department of Asian Studies” (or “the Asian Studies Department”).

“It has always been her ambition to study architecture,” but “The building that houses the School of Architecture is a disgrace to the discipline.”

When references to academic disciplines are listed, as on a business card or a résumé, or in institutional promotional text such as flyers or in lists, they are labels rather than prose, so capitalization is acceptable.

On a related note, take care to distinguish between singular and plural terms. For example, social science is a specific academic discipline, the study of society. However, the social sciences are, collectively, the academic disciplines pertaining to humans, such as archaeology, economics, geography, and so on (including social science). (Likewise, observe the distinction between communications and “mass communication.”)

Again, both terms are capitalized only as part of a proper name (for example, “the Department of Social Science,” “the Institute of Social Sciences”). In addition, because they constitute standing phrases, they are not hyphenated as a phrasal adjective. (For example, “The paper examines athletics from a social science perspective.”)

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4 thoughts on “Capitalization of Names of Academic Disciplines”

  1. I disagree with the following and its parenthetical part, and some other elements:
    He “obtained a degree in Asian studies,” but “He enrolled in the Department of Asian Studies” (or “the Asian Studies Department”).
    This implies that the two names for the department are interchangeable, but they are not. One of these is the official name of the department, and the other is a bunch of baloney. Writers should take five minutes of care to find out which.
    I loved the way that President Obama spoke carefully, and he was always prepared. For example, in speeches he always said, “The Secretary of the Treasury” or “The Secretary of Defense”, rather than “The Treasury Secretary” or “The Defense Secretary” like careless people do. Also, “The Speaker of the House”, “The President Pro Tem of the Senate”, and “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff”. (Lots of people have been inoculated against prepositional phrases.)
    It would be a shock to hear Queen Elizabeth II or the (deceased) Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher twisting around the titles of “the Chancellor of the Exchequer” or the “Minister of Defence”.

  2. I object to the phrase “he obtained a degree…”, and I consider this to be an errant Briticism.
    Degrees can be “obtained” by buying one (Yes!), by fraudulent means (yes!), or by cheating oneself through a school of higher education (Yes!). These have even happened with important ones like degrees in medicine, dentistry, law, psychology, engineering, and teaching.
    Worthwhile degrees are “earned” by hard work and study. They are earned by people who believe, “I will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate others who do.”.

  3. Twisting around the names of departments and their chief officers runs into deep trouble with Federal and State departments like these:
    The Department of State — The Secretary of State,
    The Department of Justice — The Attorney General,
    The Department of Health and Human Services,
    The Department of Housing and Urban Development,
    The Department of the Army, The Department of the Navy,
    The Department of the Air Force,
    The (former) Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
    The correct titles are ones like these: Secretary of the Navy (which the U.S.A. has had for a long, long time), the Secretary of the Air Force (which is something new since 1948).
    The various States and Canadian provinces have departments and high officers with more exotic names than these.

  4. Hmmm… Would that be the same careful-and-always-prepared speaker who referred to Navy corpse-men, called the Embassy of the UK “the English Embassy”, or admitted that he didn’t know the “Austrian language” term for wheeling and dealing?

    Also, if we are praising precision we have to be precise. There is no Minister of Defence in the UK. There is a Secretary of State for Defence and a couple of Ministers of State for MOD areas. And Chancellor of the Exchequer is at least as “careless” as Treasury Secretary would be, since the actual title of the office is Chancellor and Under-Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Exchequer. Even the “II” after Elizabeth’s name is problematic—if legally OK—, especially in Scotland.

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