When to use initial capitals
One of my pet hates is the overuse and inconsistent use of initial capitals. I think many people were taught that all important words deserved to be capitalised and old habits die hard. The modern trend is for more minimal capitalisation.
There are some specific rules, but the basic rules are quite simple.
- The beginning of a sentence
- Names of specific people, places and organisations
- Titles of books, plays and legislation
- Official job titles
NB: Capitalisation means using an initial capitalisation. Full capitalisation is the term used when every letter in a word is a capital.
Capitalise the beginning of a sentence
The well-established convention of starting a sentence with an initial capitals is challenged when a name or word starts with a lower-case letter. (e-newsletter, writetogovern.com.au, iTunes). The easiest way to avoid this problem, is to re-arrange the sentence so it no longer starts with the problematic word.
If that’s not possible, you need to decide whether to capitalise the word or leave it lowercase. The Australian Commonwealth Style manual says ‘if the lowercase first letter is not essential to understanding the name, convert it to a capital at the start of the sentence.’
Capitalise names of specific people, places and organisations
Most of us know without thinking that proper nouns take initial capitals.
Organisation names are capitalised unless referred to generically. Style manual says:
When organisations’ names are reduced to a generic element, the capitals can usually be dispensed with; capitals are retained, however, if the shortened version still carries a specific element. Thus, the Attorney-General’s Department becomes Attorney-General’s, but ‘the department’.
The Australian style is to capitalise ‘important’ words in titles, but not in headings. The words not capitalised are usually the prepositions (to, by, at), conjunctions (and, but) and articles (a, the). Not all style guides agree on capitalising prepositions or hyphenated words. For more information, read my post on titles and headings.
Pride and Prejudice
Department of Social Services
In sentence case you just need initial capitals for the first word and proper nouns.
Colons and semicolons
Capitalise official job titles
Capitalise official job titles, but not titles that describe a person’s role. Official job titles always come before the person’s name. Descriptive job titles can come before or after the person’s name.
General Manager Jane Smith called a meeting. (no commas)
Jane Smith, the general manager, called a meeting.
The general manager, Jane Smith, called a meeting.
The modern trend is for more minimal capitalisation
- Fewer initial capitals are used for respect
Many business writers use initial capitals out of respect for generic words such as management.
A few ‘respect’ capitals still remain because old habits die hard. For example, most organisations refer to the board with a capital B even though this is unnecessary.
- Fewer initial capitals are used for defined terms
Style manual says: ‘One of the few remaining widespread uses of capitals to distinguish an otherwise generic word is found in legal documents, where words that have been specifically defined (such as Schedule and Party) are often capitalised wherever they appear in text.’
In my experience, this practice of capitalising defined terms still occurs in business writing, particularly in policies. Do you still capitalise defined terms?
Overuse and inconsistent capitalisation
The most common problems with capitalisation in business writing are overuse and inconsistent use of initial capitals.
Writers still seem to think that headings should be in title case but are seldom consistent with their capitalisation. Initial capitals for ‘respect’ are also rife – and once again, are inconsistently used.
Some people are not sure of the rules for title case, so I often see articles capitalised (Write A Heading) and verbs not capitalised (The Eulogy is Amazing).
Specific capital usage
I’ve covered some of the basic usages, but more specific uses of initial capitals (e.g. names of dog breeds) are covered in my online course, Grammar, Punctuation and Usage.