“Avoid unnecessary capitals” is one of the main style and grammar commandments of all the style manuals, but there are three main pitfalls that can lead to inappropriate capitalization and cause a piece to look amateurish.
Pitfall #1: Publication and Composition Titles
Rules for capitalizing titles can differ depending on the style guide that you’re using, so this is an especially thorny area.
For example, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) states that you should capitalize the first and last words, and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that, etc.). The manual wants the following to be lowercase unless they are the first and/or last words of the title:
- Articles (e.g., a, an, the)
- Coordinating conjunctions (e.g., and, yet, but, so)
- Prepositions (e.g., between, through, to, from, etc.)
- The“to” of an infinitive
The Associated Press Stylebook has many of the same rules (e.g., prepositions and conjunctions should always be capitalized if they’re at the beginning or end of a title). However, this style guide requires you to capitalize any preposition or conjunction that has four or more letters. The same goes for journals that use the manual for the American Psychological Association (APA) but they also should also capitalize articles of four letters or more.
Additionally, if your title has a hyphenated compound, the CMS requires that you capitalize both hyphenated elements (e.g.,“Twentieth-Century”) unless the second part is an article, preposition, coordinating conjunction, or a modifier following a musical key symbol (e.g., E-flat Concerto). Also, if the first element of the compound is a prefix (e.g., anti-, ex-), then the second element should be lowercase unless it is a proper noun (i.e., a name) or proper adjective.
The Associated Press generally calls for the second part of a hyphenated compound to be lowercase as does the APA manual.
Pitfall #2: Professional Titles
Many people have a tendency to capitalize their job titles, regardless of the context, in an effort to emphasize the importance of what they do (and who they are). It doesn’t work, especially with journalists. All that’s being conveyed is ignorance and/or ego (yes, it’s a pet peeve).
In general, titles are capitalized only when they have been used immediately before a name. When a title follows the name, is set off from a name by commas or is used alone, you should use lowercase,
The CMS makes an exception for certain British titles, honorific titles (e.g., Her Majesty, His Eminence, Your Honor) academic professorships and fellowships as well as titles used instead of a name in direct address (e.g.,“Aye, Captain!”).
Pitfall #3: Common Nouns as Part of Names
When a common noun such as“street,”“party” or“west” is a part of a proper name, then it is capitalized (e.g., Wall Street, Libertarian Party or West Indies). However, you should lowercase those nouns in a plural context (e.g., the Democratic and Republican parties).
Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, and not everyone agrees. AP style guidelines mandate that followers write“french fries” but“English muffins” while grammarians like the late Dr. Charles Darling, my favorite grammar expert, call for“French fries.”
When in doubt, consult a good, recent dictionary associated with the relevant style book (if you’re using one). The CMS recommends Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, among others, while the Associated Press Stylebook recommends Webster’s New World College Dictionary. That way, you can always ensure that the quality of your writing is always (ahem) capital!