Responses to Questions About Capitalization

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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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18 thoughts on “Responses to Questions About Capitalization”

  1. “Jewish, on the other hand, though it also refers to a diverse population”

    Diverse from what? When did “diverse” become code for non-WASP or nonwhite?

    Also, when is it correct to talk about “population” or “community” when talking about a group, as in the Jewish population or the African American community?

  2. Though black usually isn’t, African-American (and the less-popular Afro-American) should always be capitalized.

  3. How about Bible when referring to the Christian book? Should it always be capitalized or are there times when it doesn’t need to be?

  4. I think if you look at previous editions of standard use guides, you will find that that capitalization “rules” have changed to more informal usage and less precise usage.

  5. Robin:

    By diverse, I mean that Jewish people are no more ethnically and culturally cohesive than black people, who originate from many distinct cultures. I didn’t use diverse as a code word, and I don’t see it that way; it’s a useful reminder of the great variety of humanity.

  6. Robin:

    To answer your third question, population is a fairly flexible word, but community is best reserved for cases in which the people under discussion are closely knit in pertinent respects.

  7. Nhlanhla:

    If you’re referring to a specific body, capitalization is always necessary: “The Management Committee meets tomorrow at 10 am.” If you’re referring generically or speculatively to such a body, lowercase the phrase: “I recommend the formation of a management committee.”

  8. Denise:

    Bible is always capitalized when it refers to the Christian or Jewish book of worship, but, unlike other book titles, it is not italicized. (I formatted it as such here because I’m referring to the word, not the book itself.) However, if you’re referring to a dominant written authority as, for example, “the bible of fly-fishing,” lowercase the word.

  9. there is also an interesting contextual flexibility to the capitalisation of Grandpa: for some families, for reasons of affection and familiarity, the relationship title actually becomes a stable component of naming. although perhaps when applied in writing through title capitalisation, it imparts a sort of irony.

  10. I work as a transcriber for the Jewish Museum. No way in the world would I not capitalize Jew or ‘Jew boy’ or Jewish ceremonies, and often I wonder why.

  11. Gabrielle on April 18, 2013 12:18 am

    I work as a transcriber for the Jewish Museum. No way in the world would I not capitalize Jew or ‘Jew boy’ or Jewish ceremonies and often I wonder in what context it is or is not appropriate.

  12. Mark,

    I think you missed the point altogether with #3 — unless I’m really mistaken, we should always capitalize religions and their adherents.

  13. “A few publications uppercase president even in isolation when it refers to the US leader . . . but most commonly it is capitalized only as a title before the name of anyone designated a president.”

    That strikes me as strange when I would write: The Queen, The Prime Minister, The Archbishop and the Principal when referring to a specific queen, prime minister, archbishop or principal. But then we do sometimes have different opinions and conventions in Canada.

  14. Curtis:

    Jewish and black are used as parallel terms, and the point is that parallel terms need not be treated the same in terms of capitalization.

  15. Black is not an ethnic group as such. Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Ethiopian etc. would be capitalized, they are ethnic groups and are black.

    English, Norwegian, Frenchmen etc. are mostly considered white–not anymore, of course, but they were originally.

    That is why black or white are not capitalized. As another person said, Afro-American is.

  16. The capitalization of Jew or Jewish is a simple matter of capitalizing a proper noun. In the same way you capitalize French, Christian, Chinese or Hindu. Why is this being unnecessarily complicated by over-sensitivity? It’s a normal rule of English and has been for a long, long time. OTOH, black and white are often used as just general adjectives or even nouns, but not proper nouns.

    I “learned”, perhaps incorrectly, that president or any similar title was capitalized when it was being “used” as a proper noun referring to a specific president instead of his name. But, just used as a word for the office it was not to be captilized.

    So, “the authoriyt to veto rests with the president”. But, “After the battle, the President went to Gettysberg to make a speech.” Of course, in practice it is always less clear than the supposed rule makes it seem.

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