Responses to Questions About Capitalization
Here are three questions I received recently from Daily Writing Tips readers concerning capitalization, along with my replies.
1. I was taught that president is always capitalized when referring to the US President.
A few publications uppercase president even in isolation when it refers to the US leader (“The President will discuss the issue during his speech”), but most commonly it is capitalized only as a title before the name of anyone designated a president (“President John Smith will discuss the issue with the college faculty”). I’m not aware of any writing or editing resources, other than style guides for these outlier publications, that call for capitalization in all cases.
This “rule” may have been passed on to you by someone who misunderstands the prevailing style precept or adheres to the style of a publication that treats president as an exception to normal capitalization rules. (Teachers, parents, and others, when they teach such “facts,” are not necessarily reliable.)
2. In the sentence “We went to our Grandpa John’s house,” is “Grandpa John” correct, or should grandpa be lowercased?
There’s a fine line in such usage, one I learned only after I had been in publishing for many years: If you use a term of family relationship before a first or last name with no preceding pronoun (“I got a call from Grandpa John”), it’s considered a title (as, for example, in “Judge Smith” or “Captain Jones”), so capitalize grandpa.
But if you precede the term with a pronoun, as in your example, grandpa becomes merely a descriptive term, one akin to friend (“my friend Mike”), for example, or neighbor (“their neighbor Jane”). So, in your example, because of the preceding our, “grandpa John” is correct.
3. Why is Jewish capitalized, when black isn’t?
Some publications capitalize black when referring to ethnicity (and treat white and other skin-color labels the same way), but because such designations encompass a nebulous category, most style black and similar terms lowercase. Jewish, on the other hand, though it also refers to a diverse population, denotes those whose culture (and religion) derives from a more specific origin. (See this post and some of its comments, which point out the inadequacy and inaccuracy of such labels.)
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