As an editor there is very little that annoys me more than apparently random capitalisation. This is a particular problem in corporate comms when people use capitals to indicate something is important, whether it’s a Program or a Product. Aarrrgghhhh. Here are my top 5 capitalisation bugbears.
By far the most annoying of the list, hence it comes first.
A job title describes who the person is, a job description describes what they do. Titles get caps, descriptions don’t.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is in New York today.
The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, is in New York today.
Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, is in New York Today.
While not always fool proof there are three general rules:
- If the wording comes after the name it’s probably a description.
- If any part of the name/title combination is a clause (surrounded by commas) it’s probably a description.
- If you can replace the wording with Mr and it makes sense, it’s most likely a title.
Back forming abbreviations is a dangerous business. Just because the abbreviation contains capital letters doesn’t mean the expression it represents needs them. Normal rules apply, cap up proper nouns, leave everything else lower case.
ATM = automatic teller machine
ETA = estimated time of arrival
COB = close of business
UN = United Nations
DFAT = Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
North, south, east and west, and all their combinations (north-east, south-south-west), not to mention plain old left and right and their nautical companions port and starboard, are not important enough to get big letters.
The obvious exceptions are:
- When they are part of a recognised geographic or political area. Emphasis on recognised. North America, the West, South-East Asia are all accepted regions but southern Europe and eastern Sahara are not.
- When they form part of a proper noun, such as the countries East Timor, The West Indies, Western Sahara, or bodies such as the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States.
Surprisingly, perhaps, southern and northern hemispheres are written like this, despite being accepted and well-defined areas.
There’s really not much to say here except don’t capitalise (with the obvious exceptions – see directions).
Not job titles this time, but the names of songs, movies, books and the like.
These are proper nouns so capitalisation is fine, but not every word needs a big letter. Those “little words” – a, and, the, in, of – aren’t capped, unless of course it’s the first word of the title.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
It’s a Long Way to Tipperary
A Wonderful Life
And the final word: as always, if in doubt, consult a dictionary. The old-fashioned paper ones are still the best, if for no other reason than the section at the back dedicated to geographic areas.