The Grammar Queen’s Guide to Capitalization


Your Highness: 

I must confess a shortcoming. Sometimes I’m not sure when to capitalize words. OK, some words. The important ones, like my Boss’s Job Title (boss’s job title?). And the smaller ones in headlines. The more examples that come to mind, the more confused I get. Please help.


My dear Subject,

Never fear—the Grammar Queen is here to assist you in your time of need. For such a simple, binary choice, capitalization can be surprisingly confounding, in part because many of us associate it with Importance. After all, so many important words and phrases are capitalized—proper nouns, royal titles, the beginnings of sentences. Really, who wouldn’t want to borrow some of the power and brilliance of the Crown Jewels—the, ahem, crown jewels of the Royal Collection at the Tower of London?

But capitalization is about more than emphasis. Unlike German, which capitalizes all nouns (and unlike seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English, which played fast and loose with the practice in a time of rapid linguistic change), modern American English is quite discerning about capitalization. Today, the devout follower need heed only a few hard and fast rules; the particulars, however, are myriad, and (one may devoutly hope) covered in detail by an organization’s style guide.

Forthwith, the two areas in which capitalization most often confuses business users, and associated remedies:

Headlines and subheads

Headlines, subheads, captions, and such follow one of two common styles. In title case, capitalize the first and last words, plus all words other than articles (such as a, an, and the), conjunctions (such as and, but, and so), and prepositions (such as in, on, at, and from):

In the Garden of the Grammar Queen
Secrets from the Keepers of the Royal Beds

Your Majestic Presence: Grace and Glory Under Pressure
A Primer for the Modern Hereditary Monarch

The perceptive among you will notice that “under,” though a preposition, is capitalized in the second title above. Scandalous? Alas, simply confusing. Style guides differ on whether to capitalize prepositions of four (or five or six) or more letters in title case. If your organization has such a rule in place, follow it. If not, you have royal permission to adopt my preference and start capitalizing prepositions at five letters.

Another option for headlines and the like is sentence case, in which titling for articles, reports, marketing materials, and so on follows standard sentence capitalization rules. It’s used far less frequently for book and movie titles, but is becoming increasingly common in business settings:

Royalty in the boardroom
Twelve tips for maintaining poise amid the hubbub of commerce

Figure 27a: The effect of garden party frequency on use of fine china, 1066–2016

So much easier, so much more—reader, do I shock you?—modern.

Job titles and occupations

People like to feel important, and not all of us have been graced with a hereditary title to call our own. More’s the pity—it would, at least, make things easier in the capitalization department. Instead, we are forced to navigate a business landscape littered with gratuitous job title capitalization, and the conscientious must work tirelessly to rein in the excess.

So. In running text, do not capitalize a job title if it is used after, or instead of, a name:

The meeting was attended by Pippa Hacking-Coff, president of the Air Beautification Society, along with the Society’s treasurer, Ronald Winston-Smoake. The president gave a rousing keynote speech.

Some styles allow capitalization when a title is used before a name, without a comma:

Led by Director of Marketing Winifred Smogg, the group reconvened that evening for a rousing karaoke session.

Job titles are also capitalized in photo captions, staff lists, and other such text. However, occupations are lowercased in such situations:

Left to right: Vice President Hillary Sales, Sales Associate Phillip Vice, and local business owner Eunice Winthrope.

Finally, you may be wondering on what authority I capitalize my own title, Grammar Queen. Indeed, I bear the capitalization of my title as a welcome burden of my rank.

More practically, the most elevated titles on a national or international level—such as King, Queen, and Pope—are often capitalized as honorifics.

The Grammar Queen received the Prime Minister in the solarium, where they enjoyed an hour of scintillating conversation over apricot scones.

Yours precisely,

The Grammar Queen

By Lisa Stonestreet