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The Ups and Downs of Capitalization


In the spring of 2011, I read a one-page promo listing the events that would kick off the annual conference of the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC) in Vancouver. Describing the red-carpet reception, the promo said: "The dress code is charmingly unclear: Dress up; Dress down; Dress as your favourite literary character or Public Personage of Note."

Lest you worry that no one is proofreading EAC publications these days (as if!), I hasten to add that the one-pager, titled "The West Coast Editor Bugle," was written and printed in the style of a 1901 broadsheet. The whimsical capitalization harked back to a time when capital letters were used more subjectively than systematically, to draw attention to words by elevating them, literally, above the rest of the content.

This "capital letters as spotlights" approach has had a long history in English. In the seventeenth century Robert Burton, scornful of his "scribbling age," when people would write anything to become famous (clearly the precursor of our own "scrambling age," when people will do anything to become famous), vented in capitals: "They will rush into all learning, divine, human authors, rake over all Indexes and Pamphlets for notes,…write great Tomes…."(The Anatomy of Melancholy).

Similarly, eighteenth-century novelist Laurence Sterne dedicated The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy to William Pitt, stating: "Never poor Wight of a Dedicator had less hopes from his Dedication…being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life."

Whether it’s an improvement or an impoverishment, today’s approach to capitalization favours rigour over whimsy. On the surface, the rules are simple: capitalize the first word of a sentence, the main words in a title and any proper noun. But dig deeper and you’ll find all kinds of tangled applications.

Proper versus common nouns

Particularly confusing to today’s writers is the difference between proper nouns (official names of specific nouns), which are capped, and common nouns (general names of general nouns), which are not. In the workplace this confusion usually leads to excessive capitalization, as in this sentence from a government document, sweetly but unintentionally reminiscent of a bygone era: "The new Management Tool allows for the electronic creation and submission of Travel Requests and Expense Reports." Here, all the nouns are common and should be lowercase.

Part of the problem is that, increased standardization aside, capitalization rules are still as varied as the martini list in an upscale bar. The best bet is to consult a current style guide, yet different guides advocate different approaches.

Take job titles and ranks, for instance. The Canadian Style (2nd ed., 1997) takes an "up" approach, capping titles when they refer to a specific person: the Leader of the Opposition, the Assistant Deputy Minister, the Archbishop. The Canadian Press Stylebook (16th ed., 2010) takes a "down" approach and generally lowercases titles (unless they’re formal titles that directly precede the name): the prime minister, the deputy minister, the archbishop.

Or consider this question, which made the rounds among my editing colleagues: should rivers be capped in "My friend has paddled down the Nahanni and Alsek rivers"? CP Stylebook and The Canadian Style both say no. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., 2010) says yes. But Chicago has flip-flopped on the matter enough to give even the sturdiest editor whiplash. The previous edition (15th) said lowercase, while the edition before that (14th) said caps but noted that the guide’s former preference had been lowercase.

Derivations of proper nouns

Words derived from proper nouns usually keep the noun’s caps; thus we refer to a Canadianized textbook, Dickensian plots and European fashions (often worn by Eurotrash). But again, variations abound. Here’s a sampling of how Chicago, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed., 2004) and The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling (19th ed., 2009) treat derivations.

  • Roman numerals (CanOx) BUT roman numerals (Caps and Spelling, Chicago); roman type (all three)
  • Dutch oven (CanOx) BUT dutch oven (Chicago)
  • Swiss cheese (CanOx) BUT swiss cheese, unless actually made in Switzerland (Chicago)
  • French door (CanOx) BUT french door (Caps and Spelling); french fries (all three)

Acronyms and initialisms

Don’t fall into the trap of automatically capitalizing a term that can be shortened to an all-caps acronym (when the letters are pronounced as a word) or initialism (when the letters are pronounced as themselves). The decision to cap the term depends on whether it’s a common or proper noun.

  • GDP: gross domestic product (common noun)
  • MOU: memorandum of understanding (common noun)
  • NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization (proper noun)
  • RCMP: Royal Canadian Mounted Police (proper noun)
  • ESL: English as a second language (proper and common nouns)

Tricky names, bumpy names

You’d think that at least proper names, of both people and organizations, would be straightforward. Not so. Some Public Personages of Note prefer to lowercase their names. CP Stylebook and Chicago recommend respecting the preference of such individuals, who include singer k.d. lang and activist bell hooks (but not poet E. E. Cummings, whose name, scholars have determined, was lowercased by his publishers).

Names of companies, institutions and the like are typically capitalized, but some organizations, usually for promotional reasons, render their names in all caps (EKATI, NAV CANADA) or all lowercase (adidas, gordongroup). In their own documentation, organizations can decorate their name with whatever flourishes they like, but CP Stylebook and Chicago advise using customary capitalization for such names (Ekati, Nav Canada, Adidas, Gordongroup).

What about the explosion of organizations (NRCan, TVOntario, HudBay Minerals), not to mention products and services (BlackBerry, iPod, eBay), whose names are a blend of caps and lowercase? Camel case, as this style is evocatively called, has been around a long time in chemical formulas (NaCl) and names (MacNeil), but the phenomenon got a healthy boost during the dot-com era. Since then, more and more names have gone bumpy: Federal Express is now FedEx; the Workers’ Compensation Board of New Brunswick is WorkSafeNB; Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children is SickKids.

An article in New Scientist (October 27, 2007) describes the two camel styles that have arisen as "UpperCamelCase" (HarperCollins) and "lowerCamelCase" (iTunes). CP Stylebook, Chicago and The Canadian Style agree that such midcaps (to use Chicago’s term) should be preserved. The guides depart, however, on how to handle lowerCamelCase at the beginning of a sentence. CP Stylebook says to capitalize the first letter of a word such as eBay and iPod if it starts a sentence (page 279); Chicago says not to (section 8.153); The Canadian Style, written before most e-age spellings developed, is silent on the issue.

Looking aHead

In her futuristic novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood satirizes the allure of camel case with names such as AnooYoo (a spa), CorpSeCorps (a security company) and SecretBurgers. Midcaps are the wave of the future, her writing implies, and I have to agree.

The Editors’ Association of Canada conference whose events were listed in that 1901-style broadsheet? Its theme was "Editing in the Age of e-Everything." You can imagine how much discussion went into the capitalization of that title.

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