Dealing With Awkward Capitalization
  • 7-minute read
  • 24th August 2023

Dealing with Awkward Capitalization

Years ago, your kindergarten teacher (or your reception teacher, for UK editors) told you to put a capital letter when you started a new sentence and at the beginning of your name.

If only that was it.

In this microlearning, we’ll cover capitalization in:

  • Headings and unusual capitalization style
  • Bullet points
  • Brand names
  • Job titles and qualifications
  • Departments, teams, boards etc.

Launch the microlearning module below to learn more about awkward capitalization conventions and to test your knowledge using our interactive quiz.

 

 

Alternatively, read on for a text-only version of the microlearning.

Sentence Case, Title Case—and Camel Case?

When they cover heading style, most style guides will require either sentence case (You capitalize the title as if it’s a sentence but without a period) or title case (You Capitalize Every Significant Word in the Title).

The rules surrounding title case are reasonably standardized, but there are small variations. Keep an eye out for:

  • How to capitalize hyphenated words (e.g., should it be “On-Site” or “On-site”? “Long-Term Plans” or “Long-term Plans”?)
  • Whether any longer prepositions should be capitalized (some style guides capitalize words like with, from, and around)

The easiest thing to do is go to a site such as Title Case Converter or Capitalize My Title and select the correct capitalization style from those listed. However, sometimes organizational style guides will have their own quirks, so don’t rely completely on these tools.

Also note that the verbs “is” and “be,” as well as the pronoun “its” should be capitalized in title case. It’s easy to miss these little words, but they are counted as significant.

In the last half century, other styles of capitalization have emerged, most notably CamelCase, kebab-case and snake_case. These are primarily in use in coding, branding, and social media, and allow words to be differentiated without the use of spaces.

If you’re interested in the numerous capitalization conventions around, TechTarget has an interesting video that analyzes the purposes and effects of modern capitalization conventions.

Capitalizing Bullet Points

The custom in corporate or online documents seems to be to capitalize the first letter of every bullet point, whether or not it is a full sentence. This keeps things simple!

However, style guides can and do vary, so do check.

If there is no style guide or it doesn’t mention bullet points, then the most important thing is to be consistent. Follow the client’s lead and (if necessary/appropriate) leave a comment that briefly explains the approach you have taken.

Here is an example comment describing the most straightforward approach to capitalizing and punctuating bullet points:

Your style guide doesn’t mention how you would like your bullet points to be formatted, so I have opted to capitalize the first word and leave a period at the end if at least one of the bullet points is a full sentence.

I have left no punctuation at the end if all the bullet points in the list are single words/phrases or partial sentences.

Creative Capitalization: Brand Names

Brands capitalize their company and product names to create and maintain their identity. How a brand’s name is capitalized helps to distinguish it from common nouns and emphasizes its significance. Unusual capitalization fosters recognition and recall, helping the brand stand out.

Two examples of unusual capitalization conventions are eBay and iPhone (camel case), Coca-Cola (hyphenated title case) and IKEA (all caps).

You should note that how a company’s brand name should be written in text may differ from how its logo is written. For example, amazon (logo) vs. Amazon (in-text), citibank (logo) vs. Citibank (in-text).

Adding further complications to the pile, style guides may sometimes instruct you to ignore brand conventions and just capitalize the first letter of the brand, as it’s easier to keep consistent.

If in doubt:

  • Follow your client’s style guide.
  • If there is no style guide or it doesn’t mention brand names, check out the company’s “about us” section on its website.
  • If you’re still not sure, pick a convention and stick to it, leaving a comment if appropriate.

Presidents, Directors, Professors, etc.

Capitalizing job titles and qualifications is usually where a proofreader starts to pull their hair out. It’s one point where a style guide often makes things more confusing, rather than less.

Mentions of job titles and qualifications can fall into three categories:

 

A non-specific job title or qualification

  • We’re looking for someone who has a qualification in engineering.
  • The department is in need of a marketing specialist.
  • Senior residents in a hospital have very heavy workloads.

These should be put into sentence case.

 

A specific position that is owned by an unspecified person or persons

  • The director said that we need to up our sales target.
  • If you’re not sure about which vaccination you need, ask the nurse.
  • All board members should attend the next meeting.

Most of the time, these should be put into sentence case. However …

This is often where style guides go a bit off-piste and start asking for odd capitalization conventions (e.g., capitalizing certain titles but not others: “the Vice-President asked to speak with the assistant manager”).

In such instances, try your best to keep to the style guide requirements. If in doubt:

  • Pick an approach and leave a comment to the customer explaining it, and/or
  • Consult with other editors working on that client’s documents, and/or
  • Contact the client and ask them to confirm their preference.

 

A specific position that is part of an official individual or corporate title

  • If you would like to apply, contact Professor Kim.
  • We are seeking a new Head of Global Marketing.
  • The audience is with Ken Collins, Vice-President of MadeUp Co.

Most of the time, these should be put into title case. However …

Often, style guides will stipulate that such titles should only be put into title case when they are attached to someone’s name. So, you might see Head of Marketing Sarah Stevens; Sarah Stevens, head of marketing; our new head of marketing, Sarah Stevens.

Again, if you’re unsure, pick an approach and leave a comment, consult with other editors, or contact the client, as appropriate.

Departments, Teams, Boards, Etc.

Similarly to job titles and qualifications, whether or not you capitalize a department or team name depends on 1) your style guide, and 2) whether or not you are talking about an actual, specific group.

 

A non-specific department, team, board etc.

  • Second-year students are divided into lab groups.
  • Please note that board members are exempt from cafeteria fees.
  • A board of directors is essential to an organization’s governance.

These should be put into sentence case.

 

A specific department, team, board etc. (not full name)

  • Please can all students head over to the biology department.
  • All decisions are subject to approval by the government (or by the board).
  • That team has the highest sales figures this quarter.

These should usually be referred to in sentence case, but this can vary between style guides.

 

Note that this approach (treating job titles, department names etc. as proper nouns and capitalizing accordingly) can also be seen in academic documents with things like chapters, examples, equations, tables, and figures. By this logic, it would be “Figure 1 shows that” but “the previous figure shows that.”

However, referencing guides vary in their approach (for example, CMoS always puts table/chapter/figure etc. into sentence case within the text).

As always: follow the style guide, and if in doubt, be consistent.

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