Sunday, January 24, 2010

To Cap or Not to Cap

A few months ago, I participated in an impromptu editors’ discussion (via email) on the rules for capitalization of titles. We were trying to reach a consensus in terms of our in-house standard (we all work for a small publisher).

Titles such as president and secretary general can cause much confusion over whether or not to capitalize. However, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) contains explicit guidelines on the topic. For instance, consider the president of the United States. The following lists the correct usage of capitalization (or not):

  • The president of the United States (unless used formally, such as in a citation or an introduction)
  • President Barack Obama
  • Barack Obama, president of the United States
  • U.S. president Barack Obama
Another variation might be “the president Obama,” although I doubt that particular phrase is ever used.

Now let’s look at Captain Crunch (just for fun). If used as a substitute for Crunch’s name in a direct address, “Captain” is capitalized, e.g. “Hand me the spoon, Captain. We’re taking on milk.” But in general reference, he is simply “the captain.”

One aspect of the online debate that generated some discussion was the question of parents, e.g. when and if you should capitalize “mom” and “dad.” In the end, we agreed to treat the terms as titles. By that standard, when “mom” or “dad” was used in place of a person’s name in direct address, it should be capitalized. By contrast, if a term was used in indirect reference, it should not be capitalized.

  • “Hey, mom, where did Sarah’s Dad go?” INCORRECT
  • “Hey, Mom, where did Sarah’s dad go?” CORRECT

The CMS contains several pages of examples that can answer most capitalization questions…and any other usage and style questions you might have. The 15th Edition is currently available from for less than $35 US. That just might be the best $35 you spend this year.

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