Crimes against capital letters

I like to think of myself as an easy-going kind of writing coach. The kind who is chiefly concerned with helping you find your true voice, and master your self-expression. I’m certainly not a comma queen or bracket bully. And unless we’re working together to produce a polished, professional piece, I won’t call you out on every tiny typo. That’s just not my style.

And for those of you who very honestly admitted to being fearful of emailing me in case I did all of the above. Fear not, because I don’t. However, there is one thing that gets on my wick. And that is the incorrect use of capital letters. Yes, the steam is rising just thinking about it.

In one of my early corporate roles outside the world of journalism and PR, a colleague confessed that she didn’t know where she should put apostrophes in her documents. So she just scattered a few around after writing them. No – I’m not kidding! Another colleague admitted she didn’t know where to put the capital letters, so again just included a few – in random places.

I’m not sure if this gun slinging style of grammar is representative of you. But if you’ve ever wondered about capitals, here are three, completely safe ways to capitalise.

Follow these guidelines and there won’t be a stray capital in sight.

1. Go back to basics

By this I mean follow the rules you learned at school. These are to start every sentence with a capital letter and use capitals for people’s names and places. Here are some other broad guidelines you can follow.

Use capitals:

  • For company names, product names, job titles and other titles. For example, Senior Creative Committee’, ‘Management Trainee Programme’ and ‘Senior Vice President’.
  • For days of the week and months of the year, but not seasons
  • For titles of books, films and journals
  • When you name a geographical area
  • For the names of languages (such as ‘English’ or ‘French’)

2. If in doubt, leave it out 

If you’re not sure whether to capitalise ‘change management’ or any other business term – don’t. Leave it in small letters. The same goes for document titles. I usually advise my clients to write titles just as you would a normal sentence. See how I’ve done it at the top of my article? It’s so much easier to do it this way.

When you do use capitals in books, films and journal titles, there are lots of rules to follow. These include not capitalising the words ‘a’ or ‘of’ or ‘on’ if they’re in the middle of a title. For example, see how the following two film titles are written: ‘A Few Good Men’ versus ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. If you’d like to learn how the pros do it, you can find the full rules at this Wikipedia page.

3. Don’t capitalise for emphasis

Finally, you have something important to say, and you want it to stand out – right? The problem is that putting a capital letter in front of all the important words and phrases is the equivalent of doing a Chandler Bing. Remember his weirdly funny emphasis on the word ‘be’? If you were a fan of Friends, you’ll probably remember the sniggering that accompanied his awkward sentence annunciation. This begs the question: do you really want to be the business version of Chandler?

So, for example, make sure you write ‘We are innovative, we are a team, we are here to win’ instead of ‘We are Innovative, we are a Team, we are here to Win’.

Finally, in a language like English there are – of course – further rules and intricacies outside the scope of this article. My simple hope is that you capitalise wisely, sparingly and gracefully.

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