Capitalization Rules for Professional Business Writing
Social media, job titles, and different software or email requirements have all added to a growing confusion regarding capitalization rules. Let’s review some of the major rules for capitalization.
This is the rule you learned way back in elementary school. (There’s a reason it used to be called grammar school). A proper noun is a specific person, place, or thing.
Here are some examples:
• Nelson Mandela (person)
• The Louvre (place)
• Microsoft (thing)
Notice how these are all names of specific people, places, or things, not generic people (doctor), places (playground), or things (computer).
Here is a more detailed list of nouns you should capitalize:
• Names of companies, institutions, and brands
• Days, Months, and Holidays
• Governmental Bodies
• Names of cities, states, and countries (and roads/streets within those)
• Names of monuments (man-made or not)
• Religions and the names of their deities
• Races, ethnicities, and nationalities aside from black and white
These are where some of the confusion stems from. Job titles seem specific and general all at once (you can be a doctor or Dr. Smith, right?). In general, job titles that come BEFORE a name are capitalized, while those that come AFTER a name are not.
• President Donald Trump
• Marlene Kim, president
• Professor Kathryn Archard
• Kathryn Archard, professor
When to Break the Rules
Like almost everything related to English grammar, the rules can sometimes be broken. Sometimes you will have a boss or a supervisor who always wants his or her title capitalized. Sometimes, not capitalizing something looks like sloppy formatting (in a brochure, table, or program, for example). In both of these circumstances, capitalize!
When NOT to Break the Rules
You can’t break the above rules whenever you want, though. When you capitalize something “randomly,” for example, to add emphasis on social media or within an email, you confuse your readers because they assume it is a proper noun.
Recently, I was interviewed by CNN about President Trump's tendency to capitalize phrases in his his tweets that normally would not be capitalized.
Capitalization signals a brand, product, or specific person, so when it is used for other words, you create an unnecessary and unwarranted sense of importance.
What About Other Parts of Speech?
Nouns, and specifically proper nouns, are the only words you should capitalize aside from the first word in a sentence. Do not capitalize verbs or adjectives.
About the author
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.