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When Should You Capitalize Titles?

When to capitalize titles, courses, disciplines, directions, and more.

By
Rob Reinalda, read by Mignon Fogarty,
August 28, 2009
Episode #185

Capitalizing titlesLast week we talked about capitalizing words in the business world. Today we're going to talk about capitalization in general.

If you recall, in English, we capitalize proper nouns—words that name a specific thing or person, words such as “Richard” and “Helen”—and we lowercase words that are common nouns that could be used to describe general things—words such as “boy” and “girl.”

We also have common adjectives and proper adjectives that follow similar rules.

Honorifics

Let’s start with what we call honorifics – “doctor,” “professor,” and “dean” are honorifics you might find on an academic campus. Then we have “mister,” “judge,” “deacon,” “sergeant,” and so on. Some of those are professional designations; others are courtesy titles. When they directly precede a name, honorifics should be capitalized.

For example, when we write Judge Joseph Smith or Deacon Fred Rutherford, we capitalize “judge” and “deacon” because they are honorifics that come before the name. Some also get abbreviated: Prof. Irwin Corey, Dr. Marcus Welby, and Sgt. Joe Friday.

“Mr.” and “Ms.,” of course, are uppercase before a name. “Mrs.,” which is less commonly used than it was several decades ago and which derives from the honorific “Mistress,” is also capitalized before a name. Same goes for “Miss,” which is usually reserved for a younger girl. A boy takes “Master” (if anything) before his name. (It's a little antiquated, but still kind of cute.)

In cases where these words stand alone, even in direct address, they are lowercase. “Hey, mister [small , look out for that pelican!” “Gee, doctor [small] , it hurts when I stick out my tongue.” 

Back to School

As you're heading back to the classroom, there are plenty of other capitalization questions. For example, Russ G. from Iowa recently sent in an e-mail message asking whether he should capitalize the name of his grade. “Is 'grade' in 'sixth grade' capitalized?” he asked. “I see both ways ... example: sixth-grade Science."

Russ doesn’t see it both ways because he's cross-eyed, he sees it both ways because sometimes “sixth grade” should be capitalized and sometimes it shouldn't. Let's think about common adjectives and proper adjectives.

Common Adjectives

When “sixth grade” is describing a group of students, it's a common adjective just like “tall” or “noisy.” The tall, noisy, sixth-grade students will arrive any minute.

Course Names

But, when you make “sixth grade” part of a specific class name, it's capitalized because the whole name of the course is a proper noun (1, 2). Just like “Richard” is a name of a specific person, “Sixth-Grade Science” could be the name of a specific class, and if so, it's capitalized. Mr. Fogarty is teaching Sixth-Grade Science at 1:00 this year.

If “sixth grade science” is the formal name of the course, it's capitalized. If it's just a descriptive way of talking about a class that's formally called “Oceans, Clouds, and Weather,” then it isn't capitalized. You only capitalize formal course names.

Disciplines

Let's talk about the difference between course names and disciplines. You now know that official course names are capitalized. What about a discipline name such as “science” when it just stands on its own? Disciplines such as science, chemistry, math, and art aren't capitalized when you're just talking about them generally, but disciplines whose names are derived from proper nouns are capitalized.

Spain and England are proper nouns because they are country names; therefore, Spanish and English are capitalized. If you’re talking about the language spoken in England in, say, the 11th century, that would be Old English, and the “o” in “old” would be capitalized as well. It’s part of the name of the language.

Centuries

As long as we’ve ventured back to the 11th century, leave “century” lowercase, as recommended by the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. It's just a generic descriptor, not a proper noun. Of course, if “century” is part of a proper name, as in 20th Century Fox, it’s capitalized.

Directions

Geography raises its own capitalization issues. “I’m heading East,” which generally means to the Eastern Seaboard or East Coast, is different from the generic, “I’m heading east,” which simply means in the easterly direction. The lowercase “e” might take you only from Des Moines to Iowa City–which is lovely, but not loaded with beaches. You'd have to leave your boogie board at home.

Sounds Like … ?

Other words can be both common nouns and proper nouns, so you change the meaning by making them uppercase or lowercase. For example, what happens if I capitalize the word “august,” meaning “majestic”? It's pronounced differently from the month of August, but the two are spelled the same. If I write about “an august ceremony,” but I uppercase “August” to make it seem more important, it has an opposite and probably misleading effect; “an August ceremony” with “august” capitalized would make readers think the ceremony was being held in the month of August, not think of the ceremony's majesty. Here, without the benefit of pronunciation, improper capitalization creates confusion.

Speaking of “confusion,” synonyms for “confusion” include “pandemonium” and “bedlam.” Fair enough; each serves the purpose. But Pandemonium, with a capital “p,” – in keeping with the topic – the name for the capital of Hell, according to John Milton in “Paradise Lost.”

Bedlam, with an uppercase “b,” was a popular name for the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London, a mental hospital. If you’re talking about mere confusion, or even chaos, propriety and sensitivity suggest you’d want to make a firm distinction and leave the “b” lowercase in “bedlam.” Otherwise, as with Pandemonium, you’d convey a meaning that you probably would prefer to avoid.The Quick and Dirty Tip for capitalization is one that applies to most grammatical and usage instances. Simply ask yourself whether you’re saying what you mean to say. Is this the right word, and would I change its meaning by making it uppercase or lowercase? When in doubt, look it up. Dictionaries can't tell you whether “sixth grade” is part of a formal course title, but they will tell you when a word has a different meaning if it is uppercase or lowercase.

Ragan.com

This podcast was written by Rob Reinalda, executive editor for Ragan Communications (word_czar on Twitter), and the audio was read by Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

References

1. Lutz, G. and Stevenson, D. Grammar Desk Reference. Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio. 2005. p. 315.

2. “Courses,” Chicago Manual of Style Online. Section 8.92 http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/ch08/ch08_sec092.html [Registration required.]

 

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