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Are you overusing capitals?

caps key 1Misplaced apostrophes (which other editing and writing blogs have gone on about ad infinitum) are one of my pet peeves, but there’s another kind of writing “crime” that gets to me: excessive, yet often random, capitalization. I am not sure how things got so bad, but it was probably someone’s misplaced effort to write “politely” and to honor folks with their correct titles, even though there was no reason why those titles needed to be capitalized. Even the president of the United States does not get capitalized in normal text, unless “President” is followed by “Obama” or is used in place of his name: “Mr. President, Putin is on the line.”

Shifty characters

The Chicago Manual of Style on capitals: “Civil, military, religious, and professional titles are capitalized when they immediately precede a personal name and are thus used as part of the name (usually replacing the title holder’s first name). Titles are normally lowercased when following a name or used in place of a name (except in a formal introduction or when used in a direct address— ‘I would have done it, Captain, but the ship was sinking.’).” There are things that need to be capitalized: The official name of a college class: “Ancient History 101,” for instance. But you don’t capitalize it in other contexts: “I’m reading a book about ancient history.”

Putting a cap on it

Here are some recent samples of misuse of capitalization I’ve come across in my work.

“. . . a certified Reflexologist and Life Coach.” These are terms that should be lowercased. Being certified in something does not mean capitalizing that thing.

“. . . sort of like the Yin and the Yang of friendship.” Although this may be an important concept, it should be lowercased.

“. . . a major stoke, which medical professionals call Arteriovenous Malformation.” Some diseases and conditions are named after a person, which is why you sometimes see the first word uppercased. Normally, and in this instance, they are lower-cased.

“. . . studying to be a Physician Assistant.” You would write, “She’s entering the Physician Assistant Program at Montclair University” (if that’s the official title of the program), but “She’s looking for a school with a physician assistant program.”

What’s the context?

It can become a mess when writers don’t differentiate between the different contexts: generic, referring to the position, vs. specific, referring to one person’s title (when used before his or her name). I can understand the confusion, because it seems like Very Important People should have capitals associated with the Special Things They Do. In some cases, uppercase is correct. But more often than not, it’s not. (Neither is making a word bold for emphasis.) I often do a search to determine whether a word or phrase needs to be capitalized. Writers would do well to do similar research. That way, if your editor queries you on something, you can have a knowledgeable defense for something being uppercased—or you’ll perhaps find that it doesn’t need to be. As the writer, you have the final say, of course. But for appearance’s sake, it’s best to use capitals sparingly.

2 Responses to Are you overusing capitals?

  1. dan says:

    i on the other hand, like to use all lower case. my reason is that i am opposed to a hierarchical alphabet and find lower case more suitable. I’ve been scolded for this. others accept it. I have used capitals for important words in certain situations and am not bothered that i did it. i did it knowing it was an error. but, i do agree with you. if i was to be submitting something, i am pretty sure i’d have it correct in all aspects, if i felt that was what was being expected of me.

    • Jan says:

      Dan, as long as you realize you’re using lowercase and are emulating at least one great poet (e.e. cummings), I see no problem. As an editor, I don’t mind making corrections. Sometimes, though, an auther argues with me that they want to leave things uppercase — titles, names of college subjects and degrees, etc. I’ll say, fine, I’ll leave them uppercase (it’s not MY book). The problem is where to draw the line. If I uppercase General (used generically), I have to uppercase Janitor and Waitress and every other occupation, and it starts to look very silly.

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