Avoid the widespread tendency to capitalize nouns arbitrarily. Not everything deserves special treatment.

People routinely uppercase names of committees, projects, titles, departments and assorted other things, usually for one of these three reasons.

  • They copy what everyone else does, without looking it up.
  • They think it is the formal name of that object or place, though they have only a vague idea of how they are defining “formal.”
  • The company’s policy is to capitalize the name, though management cannot clearly explain why.

The core principle relating to capitalization has not changed in at least 60 years: Proper nouns are capitalized, and common nouns are not. But many people have forgotten – or choose to ignore – what constitutes a proper noun. The Associated Press Stylebook, the most common usage guide in business and journalism, says that to be capitalized, “that noun should constitute the unique identification of a person, place, or thing.”

But such common nouns as Customer, Team, and Program are routinely capitalized, though they should rarely be. A stylebook or dictionary usually will explain the exceptions and subtle distinctions. For example, the word east is not capitalized when used as a compass direction but it is when it refers to a geographic region (East Coast), because that is the formal name of that area.

If your company has a style guide and the word you are struggling with is not listed, then consult a stylebook or the dictionary. If you are still stumped, give it some thought and make your best guess. The important thing is to be consistent throughout the document or message your are writing.

There often are different opinions about whether something should be uppercase, and there also are regional differences. More words tend to appear capitalized in British English than in American English.

One reminder that could reduce a lot of needless capitalization is this: Just because something within the company is commonly known by a particular name does not mean it should be capitalized.

The senior leadership team is simply a reference to a group of executives in leadership positions, but it is not a proper noun, according to the intent of traditional capitalization guidelines.

Most things should meet one of these criteria to be capitalized:

  • It is the formal, proper name of something (Starbucks Corporation, Time magazine).
  • It has copyright or trademark protection (he reached for a Kleenex).
  • It is a popular, recognized name that is well established, usually after decades of use, such as the Bay Area (San Francisco) or the Street (Wall Street).

Titles: The commonly accepted standard is to lowercase titles unless they appear immediately before a name. Here are four ways to present a title:

  • Vice President Pam Sears
  • Pam Sears, vice president
  • She was named this week as the new vice president.
  • Our new senior vice president, Pam Sears, will attend. (Once you set her name off with commas, her name is considered a nonessential element, so the title reverts to lowercase.)

Zylox Corp. Marketing Department is the formal name of a department, but when you refer to “the marketing department” or when you say “Pam works in marketing,” lowercase it, because “marketing” is not a proper noun in those instances. Most companies have a marketing department, so it is a generic term, which means it loses its special status as a proper noun.

The Fuzzyblub Toy Co. is the legal name of the company, but if in the next sentence you refer to “the company,” it is lower case because the formal name of the business is not “company.” The fact that you are referring to that particular company does not matter.

Remembering that many labels are not formal names can help you keep capitalization to a minimum.