Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Confession: I am a capitalization constable.
Note I’m not using the word “cop” but instead the less violent British position of constable. (Did you know that American cops kill the same number of people with guns in one day that British officers do in a year? I am writing this on the day that a Kentucky grand jury failed to indict cops for killing Breonna Taylor.)
I am ever on the lookout for excess, unnecessary capitalization. It comes from all those years working with engineers and scientists, who seem to believe that words become more important if they are capitalized.
They are not the only group who believe this...anyone who reads a legal contract will see the word “Client” capitalized for no good reason.
Religious types have expanded the tendency to capitalize any form of religious deity to apply it to “church,” “temple,” or other sorts of words.
My husband recently visited my previous employer’s revamped website, the structure of which I helped design and develop, and found it awash in unnecessary capitals. The preponderance of uppercase letters told him which content had been published after my departure!
Capital letters are correct when:
You start a new sentence or bulleted list
You are writing a title or heading (although initial capitals are okay with these as well)
You are using a proper noun or official title
Otherwise, try to keep yourself from capitalizing.
Here are four times I’d give you a very polite English ticket (with a cuppa!) if you use lowercase letters instead of capitals:
1. Job titles or positions
I constantly see job titles capitalized, like “project manager” or “vice president,” to make them sound loftier. All style and grammar books agree; the only time you should capitalize a person’s position is when it precedes that person’s name.
Here are some examples from the site in question:
Incorrect: “As a Senior Project Engineer, Bruce has been a key player in several projects...”
Incorrect: “This passion led him to become a Landscape Architect and the Principal Landscape Architect and Federal Practice Area Leader...”
Incorrect: “He enjoys working as the Owner’s Representative on a project...”
Project manager or “chair” should never be capitalized unless it comes right before a name...
Incorrect: “Lesley Smith is a Certified Project Manager...”
Incorrect: “Susanna Hill is the Chair of the Selection Committee.”
Correct: “Lesley Smith is a certified project manager...”
Correct: “Project Manager Lesley Smith spoke to the team...”
Even if someone is REALLY important, like my sister-in-law who is a chief executive officer, the title should not be capitalized unless it comes right before their title:
Incorrect: “Shemara Wikramanayake is the Chief Executive Officer of Macquarie Bank in Australia.”
Correct: “Macquarie Chief Executive Officer Shemara Wikramanayake spoke to Business Insider about her company’s plans...”
2. University degrees
This one causes endless confusion. Only capitalize the name of the degree when the full name is used, and never capitalize the area of study unless it’s part of the full name or is actually a language (like French, Spanish, etc.). If this is listed formally, like in a section of a resume, I will let people get away with capitalizing.
Incorrect: Jane Doe earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre.
Incorrect: Kristin earned a doctorate degree in Biology.
Incorrect: Jesse earned a Bachelor of Science in Construction Management.
Incorrect: “She earned a scholarship to Oregon State University in Construction Engineering Management.”
Correct: Jane Doe earned a Bachelor of Arts in theatre.
Correct: Jane Doe earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre.
Correct: “She earned a scholarship to OSU in construction engineering management.”
3. A group, service, or practice
Avoid capitalizing unless the name is an official title of a group.
Incorrect: “She works for the Owner’s Representative division of ABC Company...”
Incorrect: “She is a supervisor in the Accounting group.”
Incorrect: “ABC Company provides Surveying and Mapping services for clients.”
Incorrect: “We work for the Federal government.”
Correct: “She works for the Construction Project Management Group of ABC Company...”
Correct: “She is a supervisor in the Finance & Accounting Department.”
Correct: “ABC Company provides structural engineering services.”
Correct: “We work for the United States government.”
4. Document names
Avoid capitalizing unless it is the full official name of a document (and use the italics then too).
Incorrect: “She is writing the Environmental Impact Statement.”
Incorrect: “CH2M produces an annual Sustainability Report.”
Correct: “She is writing the Burnside Bridge Environmental Impact Statement.”
Correct: “The CH2M HILL Sustainability and Corporate Citizenship Report conforms with the Global Reporting Index.”
If in doubt, look it up! Or you can also drop me an email and I’d be happy to advise.
Contact me if you can use some help with your writing, editing, communications, or marketing. With over 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world.
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