When to capitalize titles, courses, disciplines, directions, and more.
Last 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.
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, look out for that pelican!” “Gee, doctor, it hurts when I stick out my tongue.” [Note: Neither Chicago nor AP make this exception for direct address. See our article about capitalizing nicknames and terms of endearment for more information.]
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.