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When Should You Capitalize Words?

Pride capitals, common nouns, and proper nouns.

By
Rob Reinalda, Writing for
Episode #184

 

Department Names

Sometimes you can simplify through capitalization. For example, a case can be made for capitalization in some business writings as a type of shorthand. “Let me check with our Legal employees,” one might write [with “legal” capitalize. It’s clear, in corporate America, that this means the Legal Department. And one can forgive a shortening there, because if you’ve ever dealt with Legal, you want to save as much time elsewhere as possible.

If you lowercase “legal” in that sentence—“Let me check with our legal employees”—it might leave your audience wondering about the lawfulness of your other staff, the ones who aren't legal. Hmmm. That might explain why your staplers keep disappearing.

‘Pride Capitals’ and ‘Ideal Forms’

One mistake business writers often make is capitalizing words simply for emphasis or to augment their importance. Such errant capitalization happens frequently in press releases and other promotional materials. Hyperbole is no stranger in that realm. Nevertheless, it does not make your pork rinds crunchier and tastier if you capitalize the words “Pork” and “Rinds.” 

Murray Munn commented on the “Pork Rind” kind of capitalization on the Grammar Girl Facebook page. He calls them “pride capitals” and speculates that “What we admire, we capitalize.” For example, he says he often sees librarians write “library” with a capital L. 

Murray isn't far from the truth because sometimes it actually is OK to capitalize words we admire. In its section on Platonic words, the Chicago Manual of Style offers this:

“Words for transcendent ideas in the Platonic sense, especially when used in a religious context, are often capitalized. Good; Beauty; Truth; the One.”

And Chocolate. OK, maybe not chocolate, but, let’s face it, there are some occasions … And although we'd like to believe “library” deserves a capital l, it doesn't.

Curious thing about these being “Platonic” ideas, because that word “Platonic” itself has a different meaning depending on its case. Dictionary.com, citing Random House, defines “Platonic” with a capital P this way:

 “of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Plato or his doctrines: [as in] the Platonic philosophy of ideal forms.”

On the other hand, “platonic” with a lowercase p means “purely spiritual; free from sensual desire, esp. in a relationship between two persons of the opposite sex.”

Now, where were we? Oh, yes, time for a clever segue back to business writing …

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About the Author

Rob Reinalda, Writing for Grammar Girl

Rob Reinalda, winner of ACES' 2019 Robinson Prize for excellence in editing, is the founder and principal of Word Czar Media. As executive editor for Ragan Communications, he writes its popular Brighter Writer column.

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