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Thomas Hauck, Editor: Notes on Capitalization

The rules of capitalization – when to capitalize words and when to write them in lower case – are complex and can seem baffling. Inconsistencies abound, even in professional publications and major media sources. In business writing, though, there is a general tendency to overuse capitalization. Business writers like to capitalize common nouns based on their perceived importance. There is a great deal of confusion about job titles, corporate division identifiers, and all the other elements that comprise a business operation, and the default choice seems to be to capitalize.

Here is a sample of the usage you’ll see in business writing:

“The Division Manager spearheaded the Company’s Downsizing Initiative (DI) by outsourcing all Call Center operations, trimming Health Care costs, and establishing a Human Resources website for job pre-screening. John Jones, XYZ Company Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, applauded the efforts.”

It should be:

“The division manager spearheaded the company’s downsizing initiative (DI) by outsourcing all call center operations, trimming health care costs, and establishing a human resources website for job pre-screening. John Jones, XYZ Company chairman and chief executive officer, applauded the efforts.”

You know that when CEO John Jones sees this in print, he’s going to want to see his job title capitalized!

When I edit, I try to adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style as much as possible, keeping in mind the business client’s attitude towards capitalization. Generally, in any document the only words that are capitalized are proper nouns. These include specific proper names of people or things.

Words that can be capitalized include:

– Job titles when used as part of a proper name, such as President Helen Jones.

– A specific proper name, such as the Arizona Public Welfare Project.

– Acronyms, such as WIC, USA, R&D.

– A specific document, such as the 2010 Annual Report.

– Headline capitalization should be applied consistently. Generally, freestanding headlines should be capitalized:

CEO Susan Morlock Attends Trade Show in South America

Subheads, where there isn’t an extra line between the subhead and the next line of text, need not be capitalized.

Here are nouns that are not capitalized:

– General terms like annual report, cost-benefit analysis, project management, income statement.

– Job titles including chairman, division manager, bank teller, janitor.

– Divisions such as call center, marketing division, board of trustees, research & development.

– The Chicago Manual states that college and university degrees are not capitalized: bachelor’s degree, master of business administration (MBA). But you do capitalize proper names: bachelor’s degree in French. This rule is routinely broken on resumes (Jenny earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Arts).

Business writers tend to capitalize common nouns when they refer to a specific noun previously cited. In a company document, The Smith Project may be referred to as the Project. The Ford Motor Company is referred to as the Company. This seems to be a practice borrowed from legal documents and contracts. It’s not correct, but it’s very common.

The most important thing is to be consistent. If you choose to capitalize Company, for example, make sure that you apply your rule consistently throughout your document.

Thomas Hauck ghostwriter, book editor, author

Thomas Hauck – ghostwriter, editor, proofreader. From his office in Gloucester, MA, an hour north of Boston, editor Thomas Hauck provides professional proofreading, ghostwriting, and book editing services for authors in the Boston area, New England, the United States, and worldwide. For unmatched personal service, contact Thomas Hauck today.


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