Thanks to mobile devices, social networking, and equal opportunity blogging, more people than ever are emailing, texting, and sharing their deepest thoughts about lunch. It's a culture of disregard for long-held language standards, and people seem to be polarized about whether that matters. (Don't worry: That debate isn't why I brought you here.)
One casualty of the quick-and-dirty communication trend is proper use of capital letters. The rules of capitalization vary according to language, document type, and the conventions you choose to follow. (And if you happen to be living in the 18th century or you're Emily Dickinson, all bets are off.) But some rules and best practices are fairly universal. If you want to make a good professional impression via decent business writing, it's worth reviewing a few commonly accepted basics.
1: Even if you're wrong, be consistently wrong
Unless your goal is to produce a whimsical ransom note effect (and what boss doesn't love that in a report or memo), arbitrary capitalization is distracting and annoying. And stupid looking. If you're not sure whether it should be Enterprise Resource Planning or enterprise resource planning, at least pick one and stick with it. (Note: There's really no good reason to capitalize that term unless it's part of a title. It's not a proper noun. Some people think that anything with an associated acronym requires capitalization, but that's not true.)
2: If you're not sure, leave it lowercase
I encounter far more instances of random or erroneous capitalization than I do words that should be capitalized but aren't. (I'm talking about real writing here, not dashed-off emails and text messages where no caps ever see the light of day.) It's like people must think, "I'll capitalize it just to be on the safe side."
Most everyone knows to capitalize the names of people, organizations, and places. That's important for clarity, emphasis, and propriety, and if you do it consistently, you're pretty well covered. But if you start capitalizing various nouns, say — and you're not writing a legal document — your readers will notice. They may not revile you for it, but your meaning will be obscured by the distraction.
3: Don't shout
By now, you'd think everyone would have a grasp of this concept. But you'll still see the occasional email or discussion post typed entirely in capital letters. It's conceivable that these are the acts of rebellious typists whose goal is to be obnoxious. I think it's more likely that the perpetrators just don't realize that typing an all-uppercase message is harder to read and comes across as in-your-face and irritating.
4: Don't capitalize generic references
One of the trickiest aspects of capitalization rules involves references to things like academic degrees, geographic locations, and job titles. Most style guides suggest that you should capitalize a specific degree, but not a generic reference to the degree itself:
- Bachelor of Fine Arts, but bachelor's degree
- Master of Medieval History, but master's degree
If you're describing a point on the compass — north, south, east, west — lowercase those words. Similarly, if you're just pinpointing an area, such as southeast Indiana or the western edge of Harrison County, there's no need to capitalize southeast or western. On the other hand, you should capitalize references to a region that has a name, such as the Gulf Coast or the Midwest.
Professional titles also tend to trip people up. You'll commonly see them capitalized, like this:
- Porter Yancey is currently the Vice President of the company.
But according to most style manuals, you should capitalize a professional title only if it comes before the name:
- Porter Yancey is currently the vice president of the company.
- Vice President Porter Yancey has been with the company for 29 years.
It may help if you think of such titles as part of the name, sort of the way you treat Mr. and Ms.
5: Do capitalize days of the week, months, holidays... but not seasons
This one is much less complicated: Monday, September, Flag Day. But spring, summer, fall, winter.
These rules aren't ironclad across all organizations, publications, or situations. You may take issue with every single guideline. And you get to. The important thing is to strive for some measure of standardization.
Of course, mishandling capitalization is hardly a hanging offense — nowhere near as bad as, say, misspelling the name of your company. But clean, consistent writing is easier to read and assimilate. It makes you look good to those who care about such things — and that's likely to include colleagues, partners, clients, and bosses.
What habits of capitalization drive you crazy?
Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.