Monday, March 19, 2012

Writing tip: cut out those Capital Letters

What is it with CAPITAL LETTERS?

One of the most common errors that I have to correct a professional editor is Overuse of Capital Letters. I see a lot of Unnecessary Capitalization.

I have to wonder, why? What is it that drives writers—and by that I do not necessarily mean Professional or aspiring Professional Writers, but People who have to Write as Part of their Jobs—to put Capital Letters with an apparent if inconsistent Sense of acknowledging the Importance of Key Concepts.

Is this deference to an Idea more important than the writer, or Conceit that every Word the Writer puts on the Screen is Something to be Noted?

Or is this just because Microsoft Word so helpfully changes things that you did not need or want changed?

  • The Meeting of the Employee Picnic Committee will be held in the big Boardroom.
  • The Board will deliberate the Members’ Programme. 
  • The Regional Directors must approve each Manager’s Monthly Report.
Over-capitalization is Distracting, Annoying and Time-Consuming. It doesn’t make words, and even less, ideas, more important than lower-case letters do. If you want readers to take your words seriously, then you have to write them so that they understand their significance.

This is what I would like you, my readers, to try: avoid capital letters. Use capital or upper-case letters only when unavoidable. Limit them to:

  • the beginnings of sentences  
  • proper names of people, places or specific things
  • titles when used immediately before a person’s name, as in President Obama.

What about headings?

Even in titles and subheadings, capital letters are not necessary for words other than the first and any proper names.

I remember the rules I learned in school: “Capitalize main words in headings and titles, such as nouns and verbs, but not prepositions or conjunctions or adjectives less than four letters long.”

What’s a major word? More to the point, what’s a minor word? What about a word like “that,” with exactly four letters? Both “That” and “that” look wrong in a headline.

Here’s my proposed solution: use the same rules for all your text. Capitalize words in headlines in the same way you would in “body copy”: if they’re proper names or the first word in a sentence.

Most major English-language newspapers and magazines today use “sentence case” for their headlines.
  • Daily chart
    The sun never sets
    How Facebook connections mirror old empires

    The Economist online, March 19
  • Sarkozy vows to find gunman in fatal Jewish school shooting
    The Globe and Mail, March 19
  • Vaccines by skin may work better, study shows
    Boston Globe, March 19
Also, don’t capitalize every word in the headings of tables and graphs. Capital letters are not necessary here, they add nothing to the information, and they take up more space than their lower-case counterparts, where space is at a premium.

Most professional editors in the English language are now pushing for less use of capital letters, and it’s time writers got into this new habit. It will benefit you in two ways:

  • It’s easier—there are fewer rules and exceptions to remember.
  • You avoid errors by using the same rules and exceptions in all your writing, whether headings, sub-heads or body text.
Here’s another way to think about it: imagine that the Shift (or, if it’s a Macintosh computer, the shift) key is hot. Pressing it causes a little pain. You don’t want to push down on that key any more than you absolutely have to, do you?

Words to capitalize
  • Proper names of people: Maggie Deng, Wasylko Bukowski 
  • Places: Ougadougou, the South China Sea 
  • Particular things that have proper names: The Roman Catholic Church, the Rotary Club, Scouts Canada
  • Titles when they come immediately before or following a name: Prime Minister David Cameron; Nathalie Delormier, Director of Marketing 
  • Particular sporting events and trophies: the Stanley Cup, the World Cup.
Do not capitalize
  • generic geographical terms: the city; eastern Spain; the north branch of the river  
  • job functions: coordinator of coffee 
  • plural titles: “These copies are for the members of Parliament.”
    “Both ministers will be available to answer questions.” 
  •  non-specific legal terms: “Parliament debated a new crime act.”
There is one other area where capitalization rules require some explanation: lists. I’ll deal with that in my next writing tip.

In the meantime, if you want a comprehensive guide to using capital letters, I’d suggest you invest in a style guide. There are a lot around. Pick one, follow it and check it frequently to make sure you’re staying true to the rules you’ve chosen.


  1. Great post. Windows does have a nasty habit of capitalising, which I don't usually see until the next edit.

  2. I'm always surprised by how many capitals there are in my first draft. Considering I have to make an effort and press an extra key, I don't know how I don't notice.

  3. Excellent advice, here, Scott!! I'm afraid I've fallen into that trap more than once. Thanks for the comprehensive lesson!!

  4. Must admit I've been guilty of this more than once; something else to watch out for. *sigh*

  5. Review is always a good idea. Thank you.

  6. Excellent advice, Scott! My ears were ringing...

  7. That works for print copy but for online titles you should capitalize all words. SEO experts will tell you to do this. It makes a difference in optimization. You certainly, shouldn't capitalize the entire word like you are yelling but the first letter of each word no matter how insignificant.

    There are different rules for online writing than there are for print copy.

    1. The point about SEO is interesting. Why do capital letters make a difference to search engines?

      I wonder if we are not sacrificing human readability for machine readability, caving in to the IT people who could as easily make software that responds to written language in a way closer to humans, compared to the choices they have made to date.

      So, is there a human rationale for capitalization? Or just a machine one?

  8. Anonymous5:29 PM

    Crime Act would be capitalised as being an act it would have been passed, therefore titular. A bill is unpassed therefore uncapitalised.

    1. Exactly. It's a proper name of something. Therefore, the capitalization is communicating some information.

  9. I would tend to capitalise something that was going to be abbreviated at a later point in the story. For example, "...they reached the Lying Up Point and settled down for a meal before they began the patrol. Once their appetite was satisfied, they left the LUP and began the march..."

    Would that be considered bad form?

    1. I use a Canadian style guide that distinguishes between abbreviations and initialisms. It recommends spelling out an initialism on first instance unless it's already common (like UN). "Initialisms are always fully capitalized," it states. It does not specifically state whether the fully spelled out words should be capitalized, but it does give as examples:

      "PIN (personal identification number)."

      Personally, I would not use "LUP" as an acronym except in dialog. But that's me.

  10. Charlotte11:58 AM

    My software likes to capitalise, predict what words I don't want to use, jump into American English ... I hope it reads this article!

  11. Many publishers wrapped the U.S. Government's guide in their own cover and sold it as gospel. I purchased a copy of the original from the GPO Bookstore (it was cheaper). I finally dumped it a few years ago now that it is readily available on many websites, e.g.

    It's funny that we developed so many bad habits in usage in style because of the typewriter. For example, few utilize italics appropriately. A style guide helps overcome this problem.

    Luckily, my wife was an executive secretary for many years and she insists on editing almost everything I write (shh, but not this posting).

  12. When I took my translation class, the teacher told us to capitalize the important words in titles, usually those with four letters and more. It's a confusing rule, because words like "that" or "them" are long enough to be capitalized (if we follow the rule above) but don't necessarily have a deep enough meaning that they should be capitalized.

    Thanks for the helpful post!

  13. Excellent advice Scott. I have fallen into this trap before. :)

  14. Hey,
    I cannot but agree that capitalization is still modern issues today. It concerns not only student but professional writers and journalists. Sometimes it's hard to make relevant capitalization according to the text's style. Anyway, one can use title case generator in order to check for mistakes. It's very convenient as you can use use anytime, only internet connection is needed. Moreover you can check for plagiarism.