Corinna Lines | June 14, 2022
Capitalisation in English is confusing and inconsistent. We talk about ‘my mum and dad’ but call them ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’. I speak French, but order french fries. You might call the police, but they might prefer Police. Is it The Netherlands or the Netherlands? The Hague or the Hague? The Internet or the internet?
Once upon a time teachers taught us about ‘proper nouns’, which always start with capitals. Life was simple in English class (never ‘english class’). Often we’re aware that ‘important’ words have a capital, like people’s names, or countries, or languages… but what about school subjects? You may take Art or Chemistry at school, but also maths, science, or geography classes. No wonder we’re confused.
Deciding what’s ‘important’ is also a subjective judgement, which will vary according to the writer. If we use the rule of ‘capitalising important words’, we may capitalise too much because our writing feels significant and we’ve invested lots of work in it. But if we struggle to distinguish levels of importance, we risk ending up with a page full of capitals. Capital letters draw the reader’s eye, so the more capitals they see on a page, the harder it is to work out what’s most important in the content.
In recent years we’ve observed a move to use fewer capitals. This actually means less work for the reader to figure out what’s important — but the writer may have to put in more work deciding when to use capitals. That’s ok though. At Write we recommend putting the reader first in everything you write. It’s always worth investing time in writing something a reader can understand easily.
Recently we answered a question sent to our enquiry email. The writer said that their Comms team had sent out instructions on how to write job titles in staff email signatures. The instruction was to only capitalise the first word of the job title. So it would look like this:
Head mouse, cartoon services
Or perhaps I could apply the advice to my signature:
Plain language consultant
The writer then asked how this would work for someone like our head of state. Would this work in their email signatures?
Deputy prime minister and minister of finance
Remember that proper nouns always start with a capital letter, such as people’s names, countries, languages, company names. Until recently, ‘Prime Minister’ would have been considered a proper noun, because it’s obviously an important role with considerable status. But now that we are seeing a move to avoid peppering a page with capital letters, perhaps we might think of it as simply another job title. Or would that feel disrespectful?
Enough difficult questions — here’s some advice for people struggling with capitalisation.
Think about ‘purpose’ when you are struggling to decide. We’ve agreed that capitals represent importance. And nobody is suggesting we stop capitalising our names, or places, or company names and brands.
But do we instinctively capitalise our job titles — perhaps as a sign of importance? Check whether you would introduce any ambiguity or possible misunderstanding if you didn’t capitalise a word. Your meaning must be absolutely clear, and sometimes that is what helps you decide. You wouldn’t apply the same capitalisation rules to the Secretary of State and an office secretary, or to the Minister of Finance and the minister of a church.
So my golden rule would be this: for a specific job title, capitals are usually the best choice.
A slight detour from job titles, but this is another tricky decision. For words that can start with either a capital or ‘small’ (lowercase) letter, we tend to talk about generic versus specific use. ‘Government’ is often difficult as it can vary between ‘G’ and ‘g’ even in the same report. For example, you might say ‘The current Labour Government’, but also write about ‘government departments’.
Try to decide whether you are writing about a specific government of the day, versus the generic parts of government that continue even when the party in power changes. If you’re writing about the specific government, go ahead and use ‘G’. If you’re talking about the generic parts of the organisation that continue even when the party in power changes, then use ‘g’.
Although we are observing a shifting preference to using minimal capitals, writers should always be aiming for clarity. So when you choose between capitals and lowercase, it’s not ‘wrong’ as long as it’s clear. So we would refer to ‘Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’, but say ‘The prime ministers of three nations met for discussions’.
My problem with the advice on job titles in the query we received is that it probably only works for a standalone occurrence such as in an email signature. In a sentence it would look very inconsistent to refer to ‘the Prime minister’ or ‘the Minister of finance’. So in a sentence you’d want to use capitals or not consistently — depending on the decision you make.
Consistency means avoiding clashes like ‘The Prime Minister and cabinet ministers’. So once you’ve decided on capitals (or not), keep that decision in mind. And it’s not just about importance — capitalising someone’s job title can also imply respect. Your decision may be easier if you think about being courteous as well as consistent. If you’re writing directly to the Prime Minister, you’d probably capitalise her job title as an indicator that her status is one of the reasons you are writing to her.
It’s a complicated topic, and language conventions keep changing and evolving. So when you are faced with decisions about capitalising, think about purpose, consistency, and courtesy.
Once you’ve made your decision, stick with it.
If you’re curious about answers from the first paragraph, here you go…
Read a 2016 blog post on this topic: Capitals: When is it the Ministry or the ministry? When is it Police or police?