Avoid the widespread writing and editing tendency to capitalize common nouns. Not everything is special, although many corporate writers and corporate communications professionals like to think so.
Writers routinely uppercase names of committees, projects, departments, titles and various other things, usually for one of these three reasons:
- They think it is the formal name of that object or place, though they have only a vague idea of what “formal” means.
- They copy what their co-workers do, without bothering to check a resource to find out if it’s correct.
- The corporation’s common practice is to capitalize the name, though management cannot 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 people either forget or ignore what a proper noun is. The most common usage guide in business and journalism, the Associated Press Stylebook, is the most helpful resource. To be capitalized, it says, “the noun should constitute the unique identification of a person, place, or thing.”
A stylebook or dictionary usually will explain the exceptions and subtle distinctions. But because people don’t use resources enough for guidance, such common nouns as customer, team, and program are routinely capitalized, though they should rarely be. For example, the word west is not capitalized when used as a compass direction but it is when it refers to a geographic region (West 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 confused, give it some thought and make your best guess. The important thing is to be consistent throughout the document or message you 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 marketing 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 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).
- It has copyright or trademark protection (he reached for a Kleenex).
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 Edward Logan
- Edward Logan, vice president
- He was named this week as the new vice president.
- Our new senior vice president, Edward Logan, will attend. (Once you set his name off with commas, his name is considered a nonessential element, so the title reverts to lowercase.)
The Printer Paper 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 a particular company does not matter.
Phoenix Corp. Sales Department is the formal name of a department, but when you refer to “the sales department” or when you say “Sarah works in sales,” lowercase it, because “sales” is not a proper noun in those instances. Most companies have a sales department, so it is a generic term, which means it loses its special status as a proper noun.
Remembering that many labels are not formal names can help you keep capitalization to a minimum.
For more writing tips to write powerfully and effectively, try one of these writing workshops.
Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at Amazon.com.