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Back to basics with capitalization

When deciding whether or not to capitalize, capitalize a word if it fits into one of the following categories. 

  • The first word in a sentence
  • "I"
  • A proper noun, which is a specific person, place, or thing
  • A title that precedes a person's name (e.g., President Obama)

Confusion around what should be capitalized often comes from differing expectations within the corporate and academic worlds. For example, in a corporate document, a person's job description is often capitalized: Dorothy Smith, Director of Communications. However, according to English grammar rules for capitalization, the only job titles that should be capitalized are those that appear in front of a person's name and are therefore actual titles, versus simply being a description: Prime Minister Harper. To further illustrate the difference, consider that it's unlikely Dorothy Smith would be addressed by a colleague only by her job description: "Excuse me, director of communications...". However, when the job description becomes a title, the individual is likely to be addressed or identified by his or her title: "Prime Minister, welcome to this event." The difference between a title and a description also determines how to refer to a specific department or course. For example, School of Leadership Studies is capitalized because the title of the school is a proper noun. If, however, an author referred generally to schools of leadership, the words should be in lower-case because they provide a description, not a title. Similarly, the name of a specific course should be capitalized because it's the proper name of the course: Foundations of Strategic Leadership. However, if an author used the phrase an introductory leadership course, it is unnecessary to capitalize any of the words because they're used to describe a course, not provide the title of a specific course. 

For more information on capitalization, please refer to the Writing Centre's page on capitalization. You might also enjoy the information provided by the Grammar Girl on the subject.

If you have any questions on this writing tip or any other writing issue, please contact the Writing Centre.

Theresa Bell
Writing centre coordinator 

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