Questions on Capitalization


Question: When referring to a university, do you capitalize the word university? Example:

I have spent many hours contemplating what I wanted in the University where I would be spending four years of my life. I will be an asset to the University as well.

This sentence comes after specifically noting that the student is interested in the University of Colorado. After that reference, when you refer back to the university would it be capitalized?

Answer: Most published stylebooks recommend lowercasing the generic designation of institutions (or companies) when it is used in isolation. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, says this (7.57):

Full titles of institutions and companies and the names of their departments and divisions are capitalized, but such words as school or company, as well as generic or descriptive terms, are lowercased when used alone.

the University of Chicago
the Law School
the Department of History
the university
the history department

This, however, is a rule that is frequently countermanded in the house style manuals of individual organizations. I have overturned it myself a few times--usually when I am editing institutional studies where there is the possibility of confusion over whether the term university refers back to a specific university or more broadly to higher education.

I recommend that you draw on the broad editorial principle of clarity. If there is no possibility of confusion, use the "down style" (lowercase the generic designator). If the down style leads to confusion, by all means capitalize, but remember that you must capitalize the word consistently throughout every discrete publication, whether that publication be a letter, a brochure, or a book-length study.


Question: Should the word god be capitalized in the phrases god-forsaken or by god?

Answer: The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that "like all proper nouns, the names of the one supreme God . . . as well as the names of other deities are capitalized."

In the phrases you are asking about, however, the reference to God is rather casual, and there are those who would deny that such phrases refer to the one supreme God at all. Lowercasing God in such phrases is an attempt to obscure the reference to God.

The problem, of course, is that such phrases are possible violations of the Third Commandment, which proscribes taking the name of the Lord in vain. The question before us is whether it is possible to fool God with capitalization tricks. The Grammar Hotline is not qualified to answer this question.

I will say, however, that the English language has a rich tradition of Third Commandment evasions. Capitalization decisions are the least sneaky of these. Such words as gee, gosh, golly, by criminy, egad, gadzooks (I especially like gadzooks) are all curses mangled to finesse the Third Commandment.

But I suppose you'd like a definite answer. Go ahead and capitalize, and the Devil take the hindmost.


Question (From a community college administrator): I would very much appreciate any grammatical information about the capitalization of compound adjectives when they appear in a capitalized list.

For example, I have a list of areas of knowledge needed in a particular field of study. I have capitalized each item in the list, but what do I do with a compund adjective like "hands-on applications"?

Should it appear as "Hands-on Applications" or "Hands-On Applications"?

Answer: I recommend following the guidelines for capitalizing titles of works as outlined in the Chicago Manual of Style, 7.124:

How to capitalize hyphenated compounds in titles is often a question. A rule of thumb that usually proves satisfactory is (1) always capitalize the first element and (2) capitalize the second element if it is a noun or proper adjective or if it has equal force with the first element.
Twentieth-Century Literature
Tool-Maker
Non-Christian
City-State
Do not capitalize the second element if (a) it is a participle modifying the first element or (b) both elements constitute a single word.
English-speaking People
Medium-sized Library
E-flat Minor
Re-establish
Self-sustaining Reaction

Applying this rule to the example you give yields "Hands-on Applications."

This is because on is neither a noun nor a proper adjective; it is a preposition--or, more properly, a particle. In addition, hands-on constitutes a single word.

Question 2: If I have a capitalized list of compound adjectives in which I am trying to follow the rules (Chicago Manual of Style) for the capitalization of compound adjectives in titles, what should I do with an item that has two compound adjectives separated by a slash? For example:

Multi-skilled/Cross-Training

Is it correct to capitalize the "t" in Training because it is the last element, and is it correct to lowercase the "s" in Skilled because Multi is a prefix?

Answer: I would have to quibble with your reasons. The Chicago rule does not recommend capitalizing every last element, and it does not recommend lowercasing all root words just because they have prefixes. In general, Chicago (7.124) recommends this: (1) Always capitalize the first element; (2) Capitalize the second element if it is a noun or proper adjective or if it has equal force with the first element.

This rule generates "Cross-Training" because Training is a noun. (Actually, itís a gerund, which is a noun formed from a verb.)

This rule generates "Multi-skilled" because skilled is neither a noun nor a proper adjective, and it does not have equal force with the first element. Rather, skilled is an adjective. (Actually, itís a past participle, which is an adjective formed from a verb.) Furthermore, the word "Multi-skilled" is less a compound than it is a simple multi-part word.

And having said all that, I must now break your heart by telling you that strict application of the Chicago rules is not always going to produce the best editorial product. The Chicago rules do indeed produce "Multi-skilled/Cross-Training." But you need to look beyond the rules to the reasons they were made: To produce consistency, and to eliminate distractions for the reader.

The soundest editorial stance is to follow the rules in general, but feel free to break them if the product is inconsistent or might distract the reader. "Multi-skilled/Cross-Training" looks funny. We could search for reasons for thisómaybe itís because the two elements are not parallel (oneís an adjective and the other is a noun), but thereís not much use in making things more complicated than they already are. Something that looks funny violates the most fundamental editorial principle of all: Donít distract the reader.

In short, if I were in charge of this project, I would capitalize Skilled.


Question: If you were trying to follow the rules for a capitalized list as outlined in The Chicago Manual of Style, how would you capitalize the abbreviation for Co-op? Co-op or Co-Op?

Answer: I suppose that if I were following the rules, I might think briefly about capitalizing "Op," since, after all, it is the main content word. It wouldn't take me very long, however, to decide that it actually means nothing in isolation, and that the word co-op is in fact now a separate concept, independent of its roots.

In short, I recommend Co-op.


Question: Please tell me if the terms world wide web and internet should be capitalized when they do not begin a sentence. Are there exceptions that apply?

Answer: Capitalization rules are quirky. In general, style manuals try to chronicle common usage on the theory that style rules exist to eliminate distractions so that the reader's attention will be directed to content instead of format. The most important principle is that your usage must be consistent within a discrete publication, but if you want to be consistent with the rest of the world, you have to consider the standard practice in publications that commonly use the phrase or word that's questionable.

To get a reading on common usage in the field, I forwarded your question to a Webmistress in the College of Engineering at N.C. State University. Here is her reply:

Both are capitalized as proper nouns, as far as I have been able to tell. I went to http://www.zdnet.com/, the Ziff-Davis publisher of a number of computer magazines, and did some random searching on articles. I never found an "internet," "world wide web," or "web" (always Web).
At the moment, there is only one Internet and World Wide Web, although there are many intranets (in-house netorking). When Internet II comes to pass and there are alternative internets, then maybe it will go lowercase.

That's good enough for me. An additional pressure to capitalize World Wide Web is the common, capitalized acronym in URLs. Most acronyms, of course, are composed of the first letters of capitalized proper nouns. The acronym pressure will probabl y keep World Wide Web capitalized long after Internet reverts to lowercase.


Question: I'm working on a paper that explores the 1939 New York World's Fair and its utopian vision of the future. I refer to the fair repeatedly. After spelling out the full identity I abbreviated it to NYWF and use NYWF for a while. After a while I begin to refer to the fair (no quotes). Would it be a better style to just keep using NYWF and never use fair? If I do use fair, should it always have a capital "F" when I refer to this fair?

Answer: Most stylebooks would advise you to use fair as the truncated form and wouldn't say anything about establishing the acronym. Since you have more information about your paper than the stylebooks, you can make a more informed choice that will help the clarity of your paper. Did anyone in 1939 refer to the fair by its acronym? If the acronym is historically inaccurate, you ought not to use it. Do you talk about the fair in comparison to other fairs? Will your reader be confused about which fair you are talking about if you don't use some typographical convention to indicate that the fair being discussed is the 1939 New York World's Fair? If you think there is a possibility of ambiguity, you should defy the stylebooks and capitalize Fair when referring to the 1939 Fair. You might end up in a dispute with a copyeditor, but by that time your capitalization decision will have helped the referees understand the paper. You'll have a reason for your decision and referee backup.

You caught my attention with your description of your topic. I find myself wondering if utopian is in the right place. Did the Fair have a utopian vision of the future, or did it have a vision of a utopian future? The amount that this choice matters depends on whether you are taking a conventional view of utopia. The term, of course, was tongue-in-cheek when Sir Thomas More introduced it. Etymologically, it means "not a place," which implies impossibility and impracticality. You may want to shift the word around a little to match your thesis.


Question: When using AP style, would you capitalize a formal title that was used after a name. Such as:

Mr. Belo has served as chief deputy commissioner for 12 years.

Answer: No. Formal titles used after a name are lowercased in AP style (q.v. AP entry "titles"): "In general, confine capitalization to formal titles used directly before an individual's name."

This generates

President Bill Clinton
President Clinton
Bill Clinton, president of the United States
Clinton has served as president since 1993.


Question: (From Steve Bambara, an N.C. State entomologist): Should the names of the seasons be capitalized? I had one paper reviewer state that a season is capitalized only when referring to a specific one: "This Spring we are going to paint our house," but not "We paint houses during the spring." Then another reviewer told me to be consistent. Any help? Thanks. --SB

Answer: The names of the seasons are almost never capitalized, except in poetry, where they are occasionally personified.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 7.31, gives these examples:

"Then Spring--with her warm showers--arrived." (Spring is personified.)
"In the springtime nature is at its best." (Spring is not personified.)

As a part-time lecturer in the Department of English, I am delighted to think that the N.C. State entomology faculty might be spending their time writing poetry about personified seasons. If, however, your work is less than poetic, you are correct in sticking consistently to a lowercase style.

Bambara has the last word:

Alas, alas, it is not true.
Of those bug poets, there are few.
I write of bees and what they do,
But need caps' help a time or two. --SB


Question: (From an N.C. State editing student): Should I capitalize the "B" in brussels sprouts?

Answer: In general, style manuals for all types of publications prescribe a streamlined "down" style for capitalization of words derived from proper names but used with a specialized meaning. This means that regardless of the style manual you consult, The Associated Press Stylebook (for newspaper style) or The Chicago Manual of Style for book and magazine style), you are likely to decide to lowercase the "B" in brussels sprouts on analogy with the initial "F" in french fries. The Chicago Manual, however, notes permissively that "Authors and editors must decide for themselves, but whatever choice is made should be followed consistently throughout a work."

This, of course, is license to do whatever your fancy directs. It is the Grammar Hotline's opinion that lowercasing brussels sprouts is one tiny step toward popularizing them. Furthermore, it is my considered opinion that Brussels sprouts are so vile that they do not deserve to be popular. In a quixotic attempt to keep them off my dinner plate, I am going to recommend consistent uppercasing of the "B" in Brussels sprouts.

You can do what you want, of course (as long as you do it consistently), but if you choose the "down" (lowercase) style, don't come crying to me when your local burger jockey tries to close your order with a cheery "Do you want brussels sprouts with that?"


Question: Is brunswick capitalized when used to modify stew?

Answer: Merriam-Webster says yes, noting that the etymology is from Brunswick County, Virginia. The general rule, as set out in the Associated Press Stylebook is this:

Most proper nouns or adjectives are capitalized when they occur in a food name: Boston brown bread, Russian dressing, Swiss cheese, Waldorf salad. Lowercase is used, however, when the food does not depend on the proper noun or adjective for its meaning: french fries, graham crackers, manhattan cocktail.

Virginians, of course, would vociferously vote for the capital, claiming that full enjoyment of Brunswick stew of course depends on understanding its origin in Brunswick County, Virginia.

But you are from North Carolina. Interstate rivalry might well prompt you to lowercase, protesting that Brunswick County, Virginia, has nothing to do with your stew--and perhaps even disparaging the tenderness of Virginia squirrel meat.

I have already overruled the dictionary in recommending that Brussels sprouts be capitalized (in a quixotic attempt to keep them off my dinner plate). Today, I find myself forced to recommend capitalizing Brunswick stew in Virginia and lowercasing brunswick stew in North Carolina (in the name of interstate rivalry).

Keeping a grammar hotline is a complicated business. Don't you have something easier to ask me? Maybe something obscure about the English subjunctive?


Question: (From an N.C. State journalism student): Should you capitalize Election Day?

Answer: Capitalization rules vary according to the type of publication for which you are writing. Both the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the style book for book and magazine writing, and the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, which is the style book for newspaper writing, recommend capitalizing the names of religious holidays and seasons, secular holidays, and other specially designated days (e.g., Good Friday, Yom Kippur, Groundhog Day, Veterans Day).

The Chicago Manual goes on to recommend lowercasing "mere descriptive appellations" like "election day or inauguration day." The AP Stylebook, however, specifically lists "Election Day" as a term to be capitalized.

The Grammar Hotline considers this discrepancy to be deeply significant. It is clear that Election Day is not a holiday for members of the working press, but perhaps they think it has come to take on nearly religious status.


Question: (From a businesswoman): I am the member of a team trying to standardize our presentations. Our question is: Is it correct to capitalize the first letter of every word, i.e., is, a, an, and, etc.? We are using Microsoft Powerpoint and the spelling and capitalization tools do not capitalize these words. Can you shed any light on this subject?

Answer: There are two basic capitalization styles for displayed headings.

Style A: The capitalization style you describe is the style usually used for academic titles and for bibliographies. The Chicago Manual of Style (7.123) provides a definitive statement of the rules:

Capitalize the first and last words and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions. Lowercase articles (the, a, an), coordinate conjunctions (and, or, for, nor), and prepositions, regardless of length, unless they are the first or last words of the title or subtitle. Lowercase the to in infinitives.

Chicago (7.124) also provides a rule for hyphenated compounds:

(1) Always capitalize the first element and (2) capitalize the second element if it is a noun or proper adjective or if it has equal force with the first element.

Thus, according to this style, you do not capitalize a, an, or and, but you do capitalize is (because it is a verb).

Style B: An alternative is to capitalize headings the same way you capitalize the words in a sentence, namely: Capitalize the first word and all proper (formal) nouns or adjectives.

Many writers are not aware how prevalent this style has become. Check your daily newspaper. It is the style used for headlines.

Recommendation: Style A was the more common style when typographic options were limited. The extra capitals provided a way for a typist to make a heading stand out. In modern print environments, with the availability of font changes, boldface, italics, and point-size changes, capitalization is a clumsy way to emphasize a title. The slickest presentations usually opt for some graphic-design options and Style B. I haven't played with Powerpoint, but surely it is very slick indeed.

Microsoft Word has a rough version of a capitalization-style option. After selecting the passage to be capitalized, you can press Shift-F3, and the machine will toggle through various capitalization styles. Microsoft Word does not recognize parts of speech, so there is always some cleanup work to be done. It sounds as though Powerpoint is programmed for parts of speech, but I'm surprised it missed is.

Please note that these capitalization rules apply only to headings. It is incredibly tedious to try to read discursive material (even in bulleted lists) that is capitalized according to Style A rules.

If you are doing a lot of presentations, it would be worthwhile to hire a graphic designer to define the typographic features of your paragraph and heading styles for you. The options provided by modern print environments are dizzying and sometimes work against one another. You're smart to standardize and not reinvent the wheel every time you prepare a presentation. And on the other hand, if you're going to rely on a template, you'd also be smart to make sure that that template is exactly what you want, that you understand it, and that you can use it efficiently.


Question: (From an N.C. State staff member): When referring to a period of time is it more proper to capitalize both names or only the first word, e.g., Neoclassical Period, or, Neoclassical period?

Answer: "When referring to a period of time is it more proper . . ."

"More proper." Hmm. You are obviously a man who has been victimized by a relativism runaround a time or two in the past. I will not toy with your patience.

I recommend following the Chicago Manual of Style (7.66, "Cultural Movements and Styles"):

Nouns and adjectives designating philosophical, literary, musical, and artistic movements, styles, and schools and their adherents are capitalized when they are derived from proper nouns. Others are usually lowercased unless, in certain contexts, capitalization is needed to distinguish the name of a movement or group from the same word in its general sense. . . . In any given work a particular term must be consistently treated.

This rule generates a lowercased neoclassical, after which you will not be tempted to capitalize period.


Question: (From an N.C. State administrator): Will you shed light on the issue of capitalization of titles? May I ask the question by giving an example or two and asking if I have capitalized "correctly"? Also, if there is a "correct" way, why is it correct?

Here are my examples:

While walking along the path, Dean Fred Jones saw four of his students studying. The dean was elated at what he saw.
The Department of Linguistics has a great program for talkers. This department is known for its wise crackers.
The following individuals were in attendance: Frederick T. Jones, dean of arts and sciences; Charlotte F. Smith, professor of chemistry; Maxine R. Evans, chancellor
cc: Herbert T. Long, head of physics; Jane S. Walters, dean of arts and sciences

Answer: Let me go through your examples first, and then I'll sum up with the general principles:

1. While walking along the path, Dean Fred Jones saw four of his students studying. The dean was elated at what he saw.

Analysis: This is consistent with the style rules for either books or newspapers. Thus, we need not sort out the probable context, but the first sentence is obviously the most fanciful of fictions and therefore book-editing rules apply.

2. The Department of Linguistics has a great program for talkers. This department is known for its wise crackers.

Analysis: This is consistent with the style rules for either books or newspapers. Note that though wise crackers is lowercased, Wise potato chips is capitalized.

3. The following individuals were in attendance: Frederick T. Jones, dean of arts and sciences; Charlotte F. Smith, professor of chemistry; Maxine R. Evans, chancellor

Analysis: This is consistent with the style rule for newspapers, but not for books. If the titles were in run-of-text in a book, they would be lowercased (e.g. Frederick T. Jones, dean of arts and sciences, was in attendance.), but there are different rules in book editing for displayed lists. Newspaper stylebooks aren't big on making exceptions, even sensible ones.

4. cc: Herbert T. Long, head of physics; Jane S. Walters, dean of arts and sciences

Analysis: The applicable source for letter-writing style would be Chicago, not the Associated Press. It's not a displayed list, but it's displayed. See general analysis below.

General Analysis: Capitalization rules vary according to the type of publication for which you are writing. Both the Associated Press Stylebook, which is the style manual for newspaper editing, and the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the style manual for book and magazine editing (and is the official stylebook for N.C. State publications), agree that "civil, military, religious, and professional titles and titles of nobility are capitalized when they immediately precede a personal name, as part of the name," but are lowercased in apposition. Thus, President Bill Clinton; but Bill Clinton, president of the United States. Note that occupational descriptions are not included in the list, and therefore are lowercased even before the name. Thus, astronaut John Glenn.

The most interesting of your examples is example 4, to which neither newspaper nor book editing rules apply, which means that it is open to interpretation. The reason for capitalization rules, or for that matter any style rules, is to encourage consistency throughout a publication in order to eliminate distractions for the reader. A letter is a discrete communication, read independently. The author of the letter can make her own capitalization choice, basing that choice on the way she wants to present herself. I have noticed that upper-level university administrators generally prefer to capitalize their titles after their signatures, and professors generally lowercase theirs. English lecturers, on the other hand, gravitate toward the capitals. I leave you to sort out the implications of this extremely unscientific observation.


Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): In the following sentence, I know the word "gods" is not capitalized, but how about the word "God"?

The Reverend Phillips said that the ancient Greeks worshipped many gods while we worship only one god.

Answer: According to the Chicago Manual of Style, the bible of editing:

Like all proper nouns, the names of the one supreme God (as Allah, El God, Jehovah, Yahweh) as well as the names of other deities (Astarte, Dagon, Diana, Pan, Shiva) are capitalized.

This, of course, does not quite address your problem, since in the example you give, "god" is a close cousin to a generic noun. The next sentence will give you peace:

The one God. Other references to deity as the one supreme God, including references to the persons of the Christian Trinity, are capitalized.

Note that this doesn't give you the rule you want, but it does imply such a rule by using a capitalized word "God" in a context very like the one in your example.

I might add that the Chicago Manual is conservative about allowing capital letters. For example, it recommends lowercasing pronouns referring to deities.


Question: Should the word god be capitalized in the phrases god-forsaken or by god?

Answer: The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that "like all proper nouns, the names of the one supreme God . . . as well as the names of other deities [be] capitalized."

In the phrases you are asking about, however, the reference to God is rather casual, and there are those who would deny that such phrases refer to the one supreme God at all. Lowercasing God in such phrases is an attempt to obscure the reference to God.

The problem, of course, is that such phrases are possible violations of the Third Commandment, which proscribes taking the name of the Lord in vain. The question before us is whether it is possible to fool God with capitalization tricks. The Grammar Hotline is not qualified to answer this question.

I will say, however, that the English language has a rich tradition of Third Commandment evasions. Capitalization decisions are the least sneaky of these. Such words as gee, gosh, golly, criminy, egad, gadzooks (I especially like gadzooks) are all curses mangled to finesse the Third Commandment.

But I suppose you'd like a definite answer. Go ahead and capitalize, and the Devil take the hindmost.


Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): When using through in a title, is it capitalized?

Answer: Through is a preposition. It's a long preposition, but it's a preposition nonetheless. Lowercase it in a title unless it is the first or last word. If it is the first or last word, capitalize it.


Question (From an N.C. State graduate student): If quoted material within a sentence is a complete sentence, should the first word be capitalized?

If a man says "You're really a great person,"
-or-
If a man says "you're really a great person,"

Answer: Capitalize the first letter of the quote. Syntactic dependency runs in two directions. In the example you give, the clause needs the completion of its direct object quotation more than the quotation needs its introductory clause. The rule is to capitalize the first letter if the quotation is not syntactically dependent on the rest of the sentence.

For a complete discussion of this subject, you might want to look at The Chicago Manual of Style, section 10.12 in the "Quotations" chapter, under "Initial Capital or Lowercase." Here's an extract of what it says, in case you don't have ready access to the manual:

When a quotation is used as a syntactical part of a sentence, it begins with a lowercase letter, even though the original is a complete sentence beginning with a capital:
Benjamin Franklin admonishes us to "plough deep while sluggards sleep."
With another aphorism, he reminded his reader that "experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other"--an observation as true today as then.
But when the quotation is not syntactically dependent on the rest of the sentence, the initial letter is capitalized. Note also the punctuation in the following: As Franklin advised, "Plough deep while sluggards sleep." With another aphorism, "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other," he puts his finger on a common weakness of mankind. His aphorism "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other" is a cogent warning to men of all ages.

The sentences that concern you are of the type of the very last of these examples.


Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): When making a statement about english as in "to master english," should the "E" be capitalized?

Answer: English is capitalized in every instance, unless you are talking about billiards, in which context "putting english on the ball" is conventional usage.


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