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Are you committing Capital punishment?

If you spotted the deliberate extra capital in the title of this post, you may not need to read on. If, on the other hand, you think there should be more capital letters, then you should keep reading. Lately I’ve noticed an outbreak of Excessive Use Of Capitals At The Start Of Words. So I thought it might be good to recap on the main rules and current preferences.

The first thing to remember about capital letters is that they TEND TO GIVE THE IMPRESSION OF SHOUTING AT YOUR READER. Remember text messages in the early days? For this reason, writing in all capitals should be avoided. The only time you can get away with all upper case is when writing titles or major headings, and even then only for design purposes (e.g. on a book cover) and only when they are short.

While use of ‘proper case’ – capitalising the first letter of a Word – doesn’t quite come across as shouting it can, if used excessively, certainly come across as a raised voice. And in any case, misused caps represent poor writing.

The rule of thumb is to err towards lower case: don’t use a capital letter unless the rules of grammar say you should. And those situations are fewer than you may think.

Initial capitals are generally used as you were taught at school. The most prominent situations include: at the start of a sentence; for people’s names (Mr Joe Bloggs); for geographic names; and for company, organisation and brand names. There are various specialist cases such as religions, some biological names and (strangely, I’ve always thought) when referring to the Internet.

Capitalising job titles is a common source of capital offence. The rule here is hardly ever: only capitalise a person’s job title when using the title directly in front of their name, e.g. ‘ Managing Director Bill Smith was at the meeting’. By contrast, ‘Bill Bloggs, managing director at Acme, was at the meeting’. Even the prime minister is only Prime Minister Julia Gillard when referred to as such.

Confusion on this last point may be where things go off the rails. I recently saw reference to the ‘Chairman of the Board’, in which neither capital is correct.

Finally, there is the (incorrect) use of capitals for emphasis, such as ‘It is very Important that Everyone Attend the meeting’. These are times when we start to feel the volume rising and so should be avoided.

There are cases where a stylistic choice is made to capitalise a particular word or two all the time, but these are rare – and should remain so. It’s important here to be consistent.

The bottom line is this: unless your grade eight teacher told you to use proper case, it probably isn’t needed. Take the low road unless you have good reason to do otherwise.