The use (and misuse) of capital letters is a perennial topic of debate between PR companies and their clients. Often we find ourselves being challenged on our removal of unnecessary capitals in copy submitted to us. So it was with great delight that I came across the following essay that provides some extremely useful ammunition in our quest to rid client copy of unwarranted capitals. I have reproduced it here in its entirety, with permission of the author Chris Gill, as an insight into how editors and journalists view the subject.
Chris has asked us to point out that convention has moved on since he wrote the original article, and that some capitalisations that would previously been viewed as acceptable are now less so. Please note also that some of the government departments and offices referred to in this essay have since been merged or discontinued.
Capital Offence by Chris Gill
Nothing stirs business authors quite so reliably as the minor matter of initial capital letters (or ICLs – see notes towards the end of this document on abbreviations). They send us copy full of Managing Directors, Random Access Memory chips and Management Award Schemes; we send it back with all of these words taken to lower case, and wait for the phone to ring.
Sometimes they simply say that they want their capitals back (and since we have usually kept an alternative version of the document with the capitals still in place, this is not a problem). But if we detect any sign of weakness we send them this essay. It is an attempt to convince sceptics by explaining why our policy is to cut capitals to the minimum.
The general position
The use of ICLs is largely a matter of convention and partly a matter of fashion. There are very few hard and fast rules. There are some conventions that are so widely shared that they can be regarded as rules. But they don’t deal with 99% of the instances of unnecessary capitalisation. For example, the managing director of our client company can’t argue that ‘Managing Director’ is ‘right’, and we can’t argue that it is ‘wrong’.
What we can do, though, is argue that if you use ‘Managing Director’ and lots of other unnecessary capitalisation you are flying in the face of professional editorial wisdom, giving out an undesirable message about your organisation and making your text more difficult to read.
Ignoring professional wisdom
We are not are engaged in a lone, eccentric campaign to rid the world of capitals. Our aversion to excessive capitals is widely shared in professional publishing. At the end of this essay are extracts from the editorial style guides of The Times, the Economist and the Financial Times, which support the case for lower case.
An undesirable message
The conventions and fashions affecting capitalisation change over time, and the modern trend is firmly away from unnecessary capitals. Excessive use of ICLs makes your text look dated. Pick up a volume of magazine articles dating from 1912, as we did recently, and you may quickly find references to ‘the Middle Class’, the level of ‘Income Tax’ and the impact of ‘the latest Coal Strike’. Not even the most enthusiastic user of ICLs would advocate these uses today. The resistance to this shift is, not surprisingly, strongest in relatively old-fashioned, bureaucratic organisations. The accounting section of a government department will refer to its staff as Data Entry Supervisors and Junior Management Accountants. Saatchi & Saatchi has copywriters and graphic designers.
Difficult to read
There are practical arguments against excessive ICLs. If capitals are reserved for special purposes – identification of special sorts of words, and the start of new sentences – comprehension of text is speeded up. If they’re used indiscriminately, recognition of key elements in your text is impeded.
The black-and-white bit
The basic convention – let’s say it’s a rule, even – is that ‘proper names’ take initial capitals. One dictionary even refers to capitalisation in its definition of ‘proper name’:
‘a name used for an individual person, place, animal, country, title etc, and spelt with a capital letter, eg Jane, London, Everest.’
We would add ‘brand’ and ‘organisation’ to the list of categories, and a complete list of examples might then run: ‘Jane, London, Lassie, France, Mister, Persil, Unilever’. It’s clear what the capitals are doing here: they’re announcing that the word you have arrived at is not an ordinary word, with an ordinary meaning; it is a name, arbitrarily allocated to or adopted by somebody or some entity, which can be understood properly only if you see it in that light.
Without the capitals, it’s difficult to figure out the meanings of the words in the list above.
If you substitute some other examples, lack of capitals changes the meaning rather than obscuring it. Compare ‘Rose, Bath, Red Rum, New Guinea, Lady, Virgin, Allied Distillers’ with ‘rose, bath, red rum, new guinea, lady, virgin, allied distillers’. We are so convinced of the value of ICLs for proper names that we believe they should be applied even to individuals who or companies which apparently prefer to do without capitals (ee cummings, kd lang, adidas). We are dealing here with the sacred business of communication, and we’re not going to let individual whims interfere with that. We make one small concession in this area: where a company or brand name is composed of two words run together (a fashion possibly going back to the venerable word processing program WordStar), we allow it. Why? Because it helps. (You might otherwise read Wordstar as WordsTar, for example.)
Of course, logos (where there is a graphic design element involved as well as a spelling issue) are different, and cannot be tampered with. When the Adidas logo is reproduced, for example, there is no choice in the matter of capitalisation.
The grey matter
There is near-universal acceptance that the use of capitals on personal titles should extend to impersonal honorary titles such as the Queen, the Lord Chancellor, the Prime Minister and the Mayor of Taunton. We go along with that. But what about everyday job titles?
Many people instinctively capitalise job titles – particularly senior ones such as Managing Director. The tendency is understandable, because the capitals suggest importance and dignity. But that doesn’t make the tendency respectable. Really it’s just a job, like housewife, street-sweeper or copy-editor. Why the fuss?
It’s natural to use capitals on job titles within a large organisation. To a personnel manager, the role of Personnel Manager is a highly defined thing; to know what the role involves, you have to look at a piece of paper which is headed Personnel Manager, or perhaps refer to an index in a book of such things where Personnel Manager comes after Patent Lawyer (Junior Grade). No problem: the personnel managers of this world can use ICLs in whatever way they find useful. It doesn’t mean that we (or you) should follow suit.
This is part of a general tendency in any working environment to use capitals to identify certain entities as important, with an enduring meaning. In these individual environments, it’s harmless enough. A tool manufacturer’s product list might include a Forged Steel Hammer, which may even be manufactured in conformity with an international standard that clearly distinguishes such a hammer from a Wrought Iron Hammer. An accountant will want to identify a client’s Net Relevant Earnings for tax-relief purposes. A builder will want his customer to agree when a major project has reached the stage of Practical Completion, so that he can get paid.
The question is not what style should be used in the internal documents of a company – whether Stanley Tools should be allowed to write ‘Forged Steel Hammer’ – but what style should be used in publications for general consumption. In all these cases, we argue, ICLs serve no useful purpose because the words are perfectly intelligible without them, and capitals and just clutter up the pages of a publication.
As we’ve said, the names of organisations – companies, government departments, charitable trusts, whatever – deserve to be capitalised like the names of people. But organisations are often referred to by one or two descriptive words which may or may not be part of the formal name; there is no point in capitalising these words. We call this our descriptive abbreviated name policy (DANP – see later section on abbreviations).
So it’s sensible to refer to the Super Widgets Company Limited in one sentence, but to ‘the staff of the company’ and not ‘the Company’ in another. NB: even those who don’t go along with this policy should be able to see that a company called Super Widgets Limited (with no ‘Company’ in its name) has no basis whatever for littering its annual report with references to ‘the Company’ [see our footnote below for an exception to this rule]
Although we’re mainly concerned here with initial capitals, it is worth recording that company and brand names that appear in all capitals in logo form should normally be typeset in upper and lower case. Where the letters are or appear to be initials themselves – SBC Human Resources, PCS Typesetting – of course they should be left as capitals. But PROMOTE! becomes Promote! And VISA becomes Visa.
The rules we apply to companies apply also to the public sector. You can and should refer to the Department for Education in one sentence, but to ‘the department’s activities’ in the next. Which brings us on to government, and related administrative concepts.
The concept of government gives some people a lot of trouble. Britain has no organisation called The Government, or even Her Majesty’s Government. Government in Britain is an ill-defined seamless function, which can get along perfectly well without the burden of capitalisation. We don’t capitalise the people or the citizens of Britain (who are governed), so we don’t capitalise the government (the band of citizens who at the moment govern).
Local government is associated with many of the worst excesses of capitalisation. Somerset County Council needs capitals, but when used separately the words county, council and county council are perfectly understandable without them.
There is no reason to write about the County of Somerset, any more than there is a reason to write about the Country of Great Britain, or the Village of Beckington. But people do, almost certainly because people talk about things being funded by ‘the county’ when they mean funded by ‘Somerset County Council’.
To generalise: the names of streets, villages, towns, cities and counties routinely get capitals; but these words themselves do not need capitals when not used in a formal title. The points of the compass do not normally get capitals and this needs to be borne in mind when referring to parts of a larger area. Capitals should be used when they will help the reader to recognise an established geographical entity, but not when referring to an area in ordinary descriptive terms. Thus, Britain is in western Europe, but is a member of an alliance for the defence of the West.
The matter of which geographical entities need or deserve capital status is something that changes, and all that we can hope to do is to consistently reflect current ideas. The first draft of this essay was written on a train which passed through the city of Birmingham, which is in the Midlands, on its way to an area that can be referred to as the north of England or (notably on road signs) as the North. Our Somerset base is in the West Country; but it is in the west of England. The Essex base of one of our business partners is certainly in eastern England, just outside east London, almost in East Anglia and nowhere near the West End. It is, as we have said, a matter of current convention.
So is the capitalisation of time. In English (but not, note, in French), days of the week and months of the year take capitals. But the seasons are not conventionally capitalised, even though it would be logical if they were.
Abbreviations deserve a special mention. There is no serious alternative to capitalisation of abbreviations composed of the initial capitals of the words in a name or concept. At the start of this essay we introduced the concept of the initial capital letter (ICL), and we acknowledge that this is a legitimate technique. Without the capitals, you try to read the string of characters as a word, and can’t.
The big danger with this arrangement is that people reverse-engineer the abbreviation, and start writing Random Access Memory as well as North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Not allowed.
Newspaper style guides on capitals
Those who are sceptical about our position on capitals should note the amazingly consistent advice given by the three major published style guides quoted below, especially the fallback advice highlighted.
The FT believes that the fewer capital letters we use the better. Places and organisations begin with a capital; personal titles generally do not. When in doubt, use lower case unless the result looks silly or is confusing.
Capitalisation is the source of great tribulation. Please adhere to the following guidance. Too many capital letters are ugly. Capitals interrupt the passage of the eye along a line. They are often unnecessary, especially with non-proper nouns such as government or ministry. Struggle to avoid them unless to do so looks absurd. If in doubt use lower case. In general, the proper names of people, their formal titles and names of well-known and substantial institutions require titles.
A balance has to be struck between so many capitals that that eyes dance and so few that the reader is diverted more by our style than by our substance. The general rule is to dignify with capital letters organisations and institutions, but not people. More exact rules are laid out below. Even these, however, leave some decisions to individual judgement. If in doubt use lower case unless it looks absurd. And remember that ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’ (Emerson).
by Chris Gill
revised October 2007
Footnote: An exception to this rule is where a company is referred to in a document that carries a legal definition, such as a contract or sometimes investor relations material. In these cases, the name of the company is explicitly associated with the word Company (capital C) to make it clear we are referring to a specific organisation.