Episode 184: August 21, 2009
by Rob Reinalda
Grammar Girl here.
In today's episode, we’ll talk about capitalization—its overuse and its misuse in the business world.
Let’s talk about why capitalization of some words is a capital idea, and why uppercasing other words could be considered a capital offense.
Meaning Is Key
One reason capitalization matters is that a word’s meaning can change depending on whether it's uppercase or lowercase.
“See those three domiciles over there? Well, I live in the white house.” That’s quite different from, “I live in the White House [capital W, capital H].” That White House is where the president lives.
In English, we capitalize words that are proper nouns—that is, they describe a specific thing or entity. They could be a title, a name, or a specific place such as the president's residence: [THEE] White House.
We lowercase words that are considered common nouns—that is, they can be used to describe many things, such as any one of the multitude of white colored houses in the world.
(As an aside, I'll note that in German all nouns and certain pronouns get uppercased; now there's a gratuitous “Das Kapital” reference just waiting to be made. And so I made one.)
Job Titles and Job Descriptions
One business conundrum is figuring out when to capitalize job titles and job descriptions. Here's the rule: If the title is an actual title—not just a job description—and it comes before the person’s name, it should generally be uppercase, as in, “Executive Vice President Xavier Gloopnox IV.” In that case, “Executive Vice President” is capitalized because it is a job title before the name.
If the title come after the name, though, make it lowercase. In that case, it’s an appositive phrase serving as an identifier. [We talked about appositives in Episode 141.] For a general job description, use lowercase, regardless of whether it comes before or after a name. In the following example, “company spokesman” is just a description, not a title, so it is lowercase.
Fritter Frenzy company spokesman Leopold Handlebar delivered the news.
When in doubt, or whenever you encounter someone with a lengthy official job title, give the person’s name first, then follow with the title, lowercase [for example]: Bartholomew Z. Bartholomew, 2nd assistant vice president for sales, northeast region, for Amalgamated Malaria Inc. His name and the company name are uppercase, but the rest of the words, such as “assistant vice president for sales,” are lowercase. It’s often best to simplify when possible. Better still might be to call him “a sales executive,” especially if you’re writing for an audio presentation, such as a podcast. Ahem.
Sometimes you can simplify through capitalization. For example, a case can be made for capitalization in some business writings as a type of shorthand. “Let me check with our Legal employees,” one might write [with “legal” capitalized]. It’s clear, in corporate America, that this means the Legal Department. And one can forgive a shortening there, because if you’ve ever dealt with Legal, you want to save as much time elsewhere as possible.
If you lowercase “legal” in that sentence -- “Let me check with our legal employees” – it might leave your audience wondering about the lawfulness of your other staff, the ones who aren't legal. Hmmm. That might explain why your staplers keep disappearing.
‘Pride Capitals’ and ‘Ideal Forms’
One mistake business writers often make is capitalizing words simply for emphasis or to augment their importance. Such errant capitalization happens frequently in press releases and other promotional materials. Hyperbole is no stranger in that realm. Nevertheless, it does not make your pork rinds crunchier and tastier if you capitalize the words “Pork” and “Rinds.”
Murray Munn commented on the “Pork Rind” kind of capitalization on the Grammar Girl Facebook page. He calls them “pride capitals” and speculates that “What we admire, we capitalize.” For example, he says he often sees librarians write “library” with a capital L.
Murray isn't far from the truth because sometimes it actually is OK to capitalize words we admire. In its section on Platonic words, the Chicago Manual of Style offers this:
[quote] “Words for transcendent ideas in the Platonic sense, especially when used in a religious context, are often capitalized. Good; Beauty; Truth; the One.” [end quote] And Chocolate. OK, maybe not chocolate, but, let’s face it, there are some occasions … And although we'd like to believe “library” deserves a capital l, it doesn't.
Curious thing about these being “Platonic” ideas, because that word “Platonic” itself has a different meaning depending on its case. Dictionary.com, citing Random House, defines “Platonic” with a capital P this way:
[quote] “of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Plato or his doctrines: [as in] the Platonic philosophy of ideal forms.” [end quote]
On the other hand, “platonic” with a lowercase p means “purely spiritual; free from sensual desire, esp. in a relationship between two persons of the opposite sex.”
Now, where were we? Oh, yes, time for a clever segue back to business writing …
OK, here it goes: If you’re writing or editing a piece about your corporate culture or the development of a product line and think that these are among Plato’s transcendent ideas and ideal forms, think again.
For example, if you were to go on and on about a product’s Creation with a capital c, that would be a huge mistake. It had better be a miracle if you’re going to introduce it with such a … Big Bang.
See? Not only are you likely to draw attention in the wrong way, you may even convey the wrong meaning.
So here’s the Quick and Dirty Tip on random or vanity capitalization: don’t.
Save uppercase for conventional uses such as a proper name or one of Plato’s lofty ideals – or for nouns if you happen to be writing in German. (In that case, maybe you should look for Grammatik Fräulein instead of Grammar Girl.)
When in doubt, look up a word to see whether its meaning varies depending on capitalization. If it does, and you really need to have it lowercase for clarity’s sake, do what you can to ensure that it doesn’t start your sentence. It would be capitalized there, of course, so its mere placement might undermine your intent.
This podcast was written by Rob Reinalda, executive editor for Ragan Communications (word_czar on Twitter), and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
That's all. Thank for listening.