Capitals? Keep them for proper nouns

Rachael Dullahide Writing style

Stop With All The Capitals! What a bore to read text that shouts at us.

In particular, have you noticed how many nouns get a capital letter these days? We know only proper nouns need a capital letter, so what’s the problem? Why so many capitals?

It could be that many people aren’t sure what a proper noun is—for example, people often confuse common nouns for proper nouns, capitalising everything from fish names (Snapper, Flake and Barramundi) to position titles (Chief Executive Officer, Finance Officer, Senior Policy Strategist). Or, they may be concerned about inadvertently offending someone, and think they are paying respect to a position or organisation by capitalising its name.

But plain English (as advocated by both the Australian style manual and the US Associated Press stylebook) is about using as few capitals as possible. That is, assume something doesn’t need a capital until it does.

To help you, here are tips about when to use a capital:

  • The following proper nouns always need a capital—the names of people, places, days of the week, and months of the year.
  • Government department and agency names get a capital when you write them in full—for example, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. But, when you shorten a name (‘the department’), lower case is just fine.
  • Program names and agreements are the same as government departments and agencies. Your Employee Assistance Program, for example, needs capitals, but the shortened form ‘the program’ should be lower case.
  • Position titles get a capital when you are referring to a particular person, such as Jane Smith, Chief Operating Officer. But it is ‘chief operating officer’ when you are talking about the position generally, or a position that someone used to have.
  • Initialisms obviously need capitals, but their full spelling may not. As an example, you don’t need to use Consumer Price Index just because CPI has caps; ‘consumer price index’ is just fine.
  • Titles (books, reports, articles) need capitals for only the first word and then any proper nouns—for example, Report on government services (not Report on Government Services) and Survey of Australian seniors (not Survey of Australian Seniors). But newspapers need maximal capitals: The Age. This style is the standard in both the Australian style manual and the US Associated Press stylebook.

Remember, keep capitals to a minimum. And, while we’re on this topic, please avoid all caps too (they are strictly the domain of designers who know how and when to successfully use all caps as a heading style).

Any questions? Just let us know.