Das Kapitalization: 14 Ways the Upper Cases Control the Means of Communication
17 August, 2022
We live in a capitalist society. Which means it’s full of businesses that are full of businesspeople who just love using Capital Letters because they seem Important:
The President of United Widget Corporation, Dave Squidgely, has issued a new Statement of Vision. The Vision that President Squidgely has for the Corporation focuses on three Key Points: Our Corporate Responsibility Charter; The promotion of Organic principles as promoted by the Government; and the Promotion of our ZYXLAVIS Brand.
Capital letters emerged more or less by accident, historically, but once we had them they became the activated charcoal of the language: people started using them for any reason they could find, even where they don’t help at all. Some languages, such as Italian, are fairly light-touch with them, while others, such as German, adore them—all German nouns are capitalized. English, being English, is chaotic and capricious, and no one is completely sure what should and should not be capitalized.
Oh, there are rules. Lots of different sets of rules. Take your pick of whose rules you want to follow. But don’t be surprised if those rules turn out to be difficult and complicated, and even still leave plenty to your judgment. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), for instance, the revered bible of many an editor, has rules of capitalization that take up the largest part of a chapter to cover, plus bits of other chapters, and yet you’ll still find yourself making the occasional judgment call.
The chains that capitals bind us with are multifarious. Here are a few of the other kinds of capitals CMOS enfranchises.
“Worth Money” Caps
This is the essence of capitalism: if it’s worth money, capitalize it. Any name you can’t just go ahead and use for free gets caps if the owner wants caps. The Winter Olympics are the Olympics, not the olympics (see CMOS 8.78), and if you call your own thing the Editing Olympics the IOC’s lawyers will come calling.
On the other hand, while names of companies and other organizations are capitalized when you’re using the full name (United Widget Corporation) or a distinctive shorter form (at United Widget, we unite widgets), if you’re just referring to them with a generic term such as the corporation, don’t capitalize, because those are just common descriptions that no one owns. Remember, generics are cheap! However, CMOS (8.68) advises that such terms “are routinely capitalized in promotional materials, business documents, and the like.” Basically, try not to capitalize them, but if your boss wants a capital, well, follow the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules.
The “worth money” rule also applies to government entities, political parties, and similar organizations and institutions. And it means that the Department of Political Science, which gets money from students and pays money to professors and staff, is capitalized, and so is Political Science 101, which you pay to take, but political science, the subject, is just the thing you study and (as you will find on graduation) isn’t worth any money intrinsically (see 8.85 and 8.86).
This is when a “worth money” word has one or more capital letters right in the middle, like a camel hump: GlaxoSmithKline, HarperCollins. Just go with it. Sigh into a paper bag if you must. See CMOS 8.69.
“It’s My Name, Dammit” Caps
Of course, people’s names are capitalized… except when they’re not. This means that bell hooks is bell hooks because bell hooks said so, and it also means that E. E. Cummings is not e. e. cummings because it was his publisher who styled it that way on a book cover, while E. E. Cummings himself kept capitalizing it. But it also means that if you see a van, von, de, d’, or any of several other bits that attach to surnames, you’d better check, because it’s Alphonso D’Abruzzo but Elizabeth d’Anjou, and it’s Ludwig van Beethoven but Eddie Van Halen. CMOS 8.5 has some guidance.
“You’re Not the Boss of Me” Caps
This is when a company or person has styled a name with all lower-case (such as adidas or intel) but like heck are you going to lower-case it at the start of a sentence or some other place where it will cause mischief. See CMOS 8.69 to justify this. Note that if the name has a camel cap but lower-case start, you can leave it as is: eBay shares are down. iPhone sales are up. This also applies to brand names that companies set in all caps in their own branding (ZYXLAVIS ULTRA): if they’re not paying you, you can just set it like any other name (Zyxlavis Ultra).
“Not Just Any” Caps
You may want to refer to the House of Representatives as the house or to the Parliament of Canada as parliament, but these are not just any house or parliament, so they’re the House and Parliament. See 8.62. This can also apply to the Treasury as short for the Department of the Treasury, but not to the bureau as short for the Federal Bureau of Investigation… see 8.63, again and again and again. And for calling the Populist Party the party but calling the Popular Front the Front, see 8.66, and do a shot. Also, we have left and right, but politically there’s the Left and the Right, and while the west is a place you can go, the West is a geopolitical sphere. See 8.67.
If you embrace conservative ideals, you’re a conservative; if you belong to the Conservative Party, you’re a Conservative. Same with communists, Communists, liberals, Liberals, democrats, Democrats, and so on. This also applies to religious groups: an all-embracing perspective is catholic, but one that is in line with the Roman Catholic Church is Catholic; an orthodox view is one that is not heterodox, but an Orthodox view is one from one of the various Orthodox churches. See 8.66, 8.70, and 8.97. CMOS helpfully notes that if someone is like a Nazi but is not a member of a Nazi party, you can call them a lower-case nazi (which is why you can play NAZI in Scrabble). In other words, as with “worth money” caps and “not just any” caps, if you can say “It’s just a description!” it doesn’t need a capital letter. We can call this “don’t sue me” lower-case.
These are capitals to indicate not so much the importance as just the thingness of something, as epitomized by Winnie the Pooh being “a Bear of Very Little Brain.” It’s not an official title, but it’s more than a passing description. Pooh Caps are very cutesy now, and constitute a literary reference of sorts, so be judicious and economical in using them. CMOS calls them “capitals for emphasis” (7.52).
These are capitals used by philosophers to indicate that something is a transcendent idea: Truth, Beauty, Unity, Having Fun (that last one might not count). They are exactly like Pooh Caps except the people who use them sincerely believe them. CMOS calls these “Platonic ideas” (8.94).
Divinities get a capital letter: the Lord, the Divine Mother. But, once again, when you’re referring generically, it’s lower-case: our God is not just any god (see 8.92). And Chicago does not endorse capitalizing divine pronouns (praise His name)… unless your publisher insists (8.95).
Holiday names get capitalized: Halloween, Labor Day, Thanksgiving. Other special days don’t: it’s just your wedding day. Sorry. See 8.89.
Some artistic and philosophical movements achieve a kind of transcendental thingness. Others don’t. The Dadaists get a cap; the surrealists don’t. New Criticism does; deconstruction doesn’t. If you think this seems surreal or not constructive, you’re not alone, but if you want to do what Chicago tells you, see 8.79.
Formally identified historical periods and events get capitals: the Ice Age, the Gilded Age, the Great Recession, the Boston Tea Party. Others, somehow less formally delimited, don’t: the age of reason, the baby boom, the civil rights movement. Who formally identifies them? Um, [waves hands generally] historians. See 8.73, 8.74, and 8.75. Any given author may have different opinions on this than CMOS’s, and may well have very good reasons for them. As an editor, querying rather than correcting can be a wonderful thing (and don’t forget whose book it is).
Acronyms and initialisms are usually in all caps, but that doesn’t mean that what they stand for is: DST stands for daylight saving time (see 8.90), and KPI stands for key performance indicator. And “usually in all caps” is quite the loophole, too: we’ve all gotten sick of (hopefully not with) COVID and never liked CoVid, so now it’s normally Covid; somehow public limited company is usually plc; and even though UNICEF came from United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, and now stands for United Nations Children’s Fund (or maybe United NatIons ChildrEn’s Fund), it’s common practice to make it Unicef. See 10.6. In fact, abbreviations are a Big Subject: see all of chapter 10 of CMOS 17. For metric and scientific abbreviations, such as MHz and nvCJD, you will get some guidance from CMOS, but you may want to check your reference scientific dictionary too.
This is usually called ALL CAPS. Some people like to do it for emphasis. Chicago would like to remind you that this is “rarely appropriate in formal prose.” “Rarely” does not mean “never,” though. See CMOS 7.52 and @infinite_scream (which may also come in useful when dealing with other capitalization rules).
But wait—there’s more! Lots more, in fact. To start with, see CMOS 17 chapter 8. All of it. We haven’t even scratched biology, geology, astronomy… It gets gross and rocky, and you may see stars.
How to Learn and Apply the Rules of the Manual
Needless to say, it’s A Whole Lot. Not only is it important to keep all the guidance in mind, it’s also important that it doesn’t take your attention away from the rest of your editing. Even the best editors will sometimes miss some of these. A better way to learn guidance from CMOS, and then make sure the rules are applied as well as possible, is to use software designed for the purpose. In 2021, the team at CMOS launched The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt. For the first time, you can get advice from The Chicago Manual of Style directly in Microsoft Word. And if you are already a PerfectIt user with a subscription to CMOS Online, then there’s no extra cost of any kind.
The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt won’t magically transform your text. Moreover, it’s certainly not exhaustive. However, it will bring potential capitalization errors to your attention together with the relevant guidance from CMOS. That helps you to learn the guidance and decide what’s right based on context. To find out more about how The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt can help with capitalization, check out Capitalization in Context from the CMOS blog.
How to Ensure Consistency
With different meanings applied to different capitalizations, it’s important to be consistent and check carefully. Do you mean liberal or Liberal, catholic or Catholic? As long as your document is consistent, the reader will understand. And it’s unlikely they’ll avoid buying the widgets that your company produces just because your boss prefers Product Manager when CMOS would have suggested project manager. However, if you’re inconsistent in your use then the effect is sloppy. And that may have an impact on your bottom line. PerfectIt helps with all of these by checking for consistency. No matter what style manual you are working with, it will point out capitalization inconsistencies and bring them to your attention so that you can decide what’s right. If you haven’t tried PerfectIt yet, you can run it on your documents today with a 14-day free trial.