Did you know that the phrase “less is more” may have originated from an 1855 poem by Robert Browning? In the 1960s, “less is more” was adopted as an axiom of minimalist architecture. It has since served as a guiding principle in various contexts, including interior design, advertising, and corporate communications. The “less is more” philosophy also applies to an oft-misused element of written English, capitalization.
Copyeditors haven’t always tracked changes in word processing documents. As recently as the 1990s, we marked up hard copies of manuscripts with red pencils (by the dim glow of kerosene lamps). The protocol for indicating an improperly capitalized word was to strike through it with a forward slash. For me, this dramatic gesture was often accompanied by the thought, “Why? Nooo!” So, why do people seem to think that capitalizing with abandon is such a capital idea?
We are taught in school that certain words are meant to be capitalized, such as the first word in a sentence or quotation, the pronoun “I,” proper nouns, days of the week, months of the year, and holidays. I believe that writers, both casual and serious, are worried they will fail to capitalize when they should. So they overcompensate, introducing capitalization where it isn’t appropriate.
Following are some of the more common capitalization mistakes I encounter in my editing, with the corresponding rules from The Chicago Manual of Style. In the examples, the incorrectly capitalized letters are bold.
Error: Capitalizing important words.
- Example: “The book is about Jazz Musicians.”
Rule: Initial capitals, once used to lend importance to certain words, are now used only ironically.
An example of the ironic use of initial caps might be, “Last night, she and her boyfriend had The Talk.” Interestingly, Shakespeare is said to have capitalized words, in the original text of his plays, that he wanted his actors to emphasize. Another tidbit: in German, all nouns are capitalized.
Error: Capitalizing titles and offices when they appear after or replace a personal name.
- Example: “George Washington was the first President of the United States.”
- Example: “Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, played a major role in the naval history of World War II.”
- Example: “I spoke to the Rabbi.”
- Example: “She served as the Chief Financial Officer of Vandelay Industries.”
Rule: Civil, military, religious, and professional titles are normally lowercased when following a name or used in place of a name.
Titles appearing before a personal name are capitalized, such as “President Lincoln.” There is an exception, however, for titles used “in apposition”—such as “American president Abraham Lincoln.”
Error: Capitalizing words like army and navy when used on their own.
- Example: “Elvis joined the Army in March 1958.”
Rule: Words such as army and navy are lowercased when standing alone, when used collectively in the plural, or when not part of an official title.
So, “the army,” “the armies,” and “the United States Army” would be correct.
Error: Capitalizing academic subjects.
- Example: “He is majoring in Comparative Literature.”
Rule: Academic subjects are not capitalized unless they form part of a department name or an official course name or are themselves proper nouns.
So, “Gender Studies Department,” “Cake Decorating 101,” and “Spanish” would be correct.
Error: Capitalizing seasons.
- Example: “Santa Barbara holds an annual parade celebrating the Summer solstice.”
Rule: The four seasons are lowercased.
The four seasons are capitalized, however, when used to denote an issue of a journal, such as “Journal of Cupcake Science 2 (Summer 2015).”
So remember, when it comes to capitalization, less is often more. Your overworked Shift key will thank you.