A Capital Idea

by Cherie Tucker

Ours is a fluid language, and the flood of technological upgrades is speeding changes even faster. Rules that used to be unquestioned are now reduced to mere suggestions.  In the world of capitalization, things have become quite challenging.  Of course beginning sentences with capitals remains unchanged, as well as referring to yourself with a capital I.  There are some new twists, however, in situations that might confuse you.

Family members deserve our love and respect, but they don’t always get capitalized.  If you are writing about or to relatives and refer to them by title, use capitals.

I spoke with Mother and Uncle Jeff about that just yesterday.

Thanks, Dad, it’s exactly what I wanted.

On the other hand, simply referring to your relative requires no capitals:

I’ll talk to my mother about it when I get home.

My brother always took the biggest cookie.

Her mom will pick the kids up after practice.

High-ranking people in state, national, or international positions require capitalization of their titles when those titles follow or stand in for the name of the official.

Here is Susan Smith, Governor of Utopia, to present the award.

Be sure you curtsey when presented to the Queen.

Don’t worry, I’m sure the Pope won’t offer you his ring to kiss.

There is a trend now, however, not to capitalize these titles when used after the name or in place of it, and it this trend that causes the confusion.  In these instances, I suggest you use the big-fish-small-pond method of capitalization.  If your audience would consider this position to be important, then capitalize it.  If the wider audience would not give the position the same deference, use lower case.   For example, titles of state and local government or organizational officials and job titles are not generally capitalized.  However, when using these titles in writing, you must consider the status your audience gives the position.

PTA newsletter:  Our President represented us at the protest.

Local newspaper:  Among the protesters was the president of the PTA.

Local newspaper:  The Mayor cut the ribbons for the new plaza.

National press:  The mayor was on hand to cut the ribbon.
One caution:  Whichever case you use for one person in a piece, use it for all.

I met with the mayor and the king.
It’s the polite thing to do.   

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.  GrammarWorks@msn.com

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