To cap or not to cap, that is the question

January 26, 2012

One of the team I work with asked:

Please could you provide us with some guidance on when to use and not to use capital letters. I would expect to use capitals for proper nouns, defined terms in a legal document, position titles, acronyms, symbols for chemical elements and the first word of each sentence. In most of the reports I read, almost every noun is capitalised and a smattering of other parts of speech as well. It looks like German.


What is the shortcut key combination for converting text to lower case?

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first…

To toggle the case of a letter, word, sentence etc, select it, then press Shift+F3 once, twice, or three times. Word will toggle between lower case (‘cat’), upper case (‘CAT’), and title case (‘Cat’).

Now on to the trickier issue of when to use initial capital letters (initial caps) or not.

The guidelines are clear for some things, but more fuzzy for others, especially when it comes how to treat generic and specific terms. The Australian Style Manual’s* index lists 20 page references specifically on capitals, with another 31 page references for the 21 index subentries under ‘capital letters’! There’s no way I’ll reproduce those guidelines here, but I’ll attempt to summarise them.

The Australian Style Manual (p119) has these overarching principles:

  • Sentences should always start with a capital letter.
  • Initial capitals should be used for proper nouns and proper names (i.e. the names of people, places, and organisations).
  • When organisations’ names are reduced to a generic element, the capitals can usually be dispensed with; however, capitals are [kept] if the shortened version still carries a specific element. Thus, the Attorney-General’s Department becomes ‘Attorney-General’s’ [or] ‘the department’.

They also make the comment that ‘One of the few remaining widespread uses of capitals to distinguish an otherwise generic word is found in legal documents, where words that have been specifically defined (such as ‘Schedule’, ‘Party’, ‘Company’, ‘Owner’) are often capitalised wherever they appear.’

When in doubt, consult your corporate style guide, a published style guide (like the Australian Style Manual or the Chicago Manual of Style), or your dictionary.

Note: This summary was written for MY team and is based on the Australian Style Manual; your style guide may differ on some of these.

Use an initial capital for… Example Notes/comments
The first word in a sentence All personnel must…
A risk assessment was…
The stakeholders agreed…
Only exceptions: names deliberately spelled in lower case; business names built on internet addresses; trade names with mid-word capitals such as ‘eBook’
Titles and honorific names Minister, Professor, Doctor  
Personal names Jim Jones, Mary Smith  
Nationalities and distinct groups of people, religions, languages and language groups Aboriginal, Chinese, American, Australian, Hindu Exceptions: common words derived from geographical locations (e.g. brussels sprouts, venetian blinds)
Official names of organisations (includes companies, government departments, states etc.) Department of Environment and Conservation, Shire of Ashburton, Government of Western Australia, XYZ Project No caps for the generic element of these names, e.g. the department, the shire council, the council
If some specificity remains (even if only implied), capitalise the specific elements, e.g. a matter for the Shire, a matter for the Department, a matter for the State government, Project-related
Always use the capitalisation, spelling, and punctuation that the organisation uses
Commonwealth   ALWAYS capped when referring to the Commonwealth of Australia
Note: p124–125 of the Style Manual deals specifically with all government terms and their capitalisation
Acts, Regulations, Agreements Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA)
National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Regulations, 2008
Republic of Korea–Australia Migratory Birds Agreement
All main words of these are capitalised (title case)
Acts are always italicised; Regulations are in normal text
Geographical locations (place names) Barrow Island, Dampier, Perth, Western Australia, Pilbara, Great Barrier Reef Exceptions: Descriptive, unofficial names for parts of a geographical entity usually don’t get capped, e.g. northern Australia; spelled out points of the compass, e.g. south-west
Note: The WA Geographic Names Committee recommends (Section 4.12) that apostrophes are not used in geographic names that are named after people (e.g. St Georges Tce, NOT St George’s Tce).
Months and days January, Monday Exception: names of seasons, e.g. summer, winter
Taxonomic groupings down to genus level Blattodea Blattidae, Blatta
Myrtles, Myrtaceae, Eucalyptus
Species, subspecies, varietal names are NOT capped
Note: Genus and species levels are italicised, as are subspecies and varietal names
Common names of specific species Humpback Whale, White-winged Fairy-wren, Spotted Dolphin, Silver Gull, Flatback Turtle Exceptions: common generic names of plants and animals are not capped, e.g. mammals, spiders, fish, corals, marine turtles
See the WA Museum nomenclature for correct hyphenation, capitalisation
Abbreviated chemical names CO2, H2S Not capitalised when written in full, e.g. carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide
Personal name element of cyclones tropical cyclone Carlos Note: The personal name is capped, but NOT the preceding generic element (‘cyclone’, ‘tropical cyclone’)
Registered trademarks, proprietary names, brand names, computer software and hardware Caterpillar, Toyota Land Cruiser, Microsoft Excel Follow the capitalisation, spelling, and punctuation used by the owner
Title of books, journals, articles Marine Ecology Progress Series Follow the capitalisation used for the publication. In some cases it will just be the first word; in others, title case will be used, where every main word is capped
References to certain elements in a publication Section 4.0, Figure 3.2, Chapter 9, Table 5.3 Don’t capitalise ‘pages’ (e.g. pages 23–56, NOT Pages 23–56)
Abbreviations, initialisms, and acronyms HDD, LNG, WA The spelled out version should obey the rules regarding proper nouns/names, so in many cases, the spelled out version is in lower case (e.g. horizontal directional drilling, liquefied natural gas, Western Australia)
Headings and captions Sea-finding Behaviour of Marine Turtle Hatchlings Use title case for all section headings, figure and table captions. Title case capitalises every main word, but not the ‘little’ words such as on, by, for, of, the, an, a, for, etc. Do not capitalise the second word in a hyphenated word
After colons Note: All deliverables… Only necessary where one or more full sentences or questions follow the colon. Otherwise, use lower case.
Exception: capitalise the first word after ‘Note:’
Items in a table   First letter of each item in a table cell is capped
Exception: units of measure, such as ‘metre’, that would not normally be capped
Units of measure C, J, kg, km, m Only some are capped; most are lower case, but there are some exceptions. See lists of SI Units for correct capitalisation
Time: ‘am’ and ‘pm’ are lower case and separated from the hours/minutes by a space (e.g. 10:00 am)
Bullet lists   Follow the rules for sentences – if ALL bullet points in the one list are full sentences, cap the first words of each; otherwise, lower case for the first word of a sentence fragment (unless it’s a proper noun/name)
Job titles Environmental Team Lead, Managing Director, Senior Engineer Generic job titles are not capped (e.g. fitters, plumbers, electricians, project managers, administrators, team leads), but specific job titles associated with an individual are capped (e.g. Environmental Team Lead, Managing Director, Project Manager). Hint: Is the title plural or singular? Plural usually indicates that it’s generic; singular indicates it’s specific to an individual
Hyphenated terms   Depends on whether it’s used as the first word in a sentence (cap first word only) or in a heading (cap first word only) or in the body of a sentence (don’t cap at all unless a proper noun/name). Second word of a compound hyphenated term is rarely, if ever, capped (unless a proper noun/name)
Names of buildings, structures, locations etc. Crib Room 3, Construction Village, accommodation buildings, utilities buildings Follow the general rules for place names; i.e. initial cap each word of the official name for a specific location (e.g. Construction Village); don’t cap generic terms (generic: crib rooms; specific: Crib Room 3)
Other Phase 2, Operations Phase Again, the rules re specific (capped) and generic (not capped) for terms such as ‘Operations Phase’ apply. If you’re referring to the specific phase in a particular process, then you cap it; if you’re referring to the time when operations are underway, you’d typically use lower case

[Links last checked January 2012; based on a Writing Tip I wrote for my work colleagues]


  1. […] To cap or not to cap, that is the question – interesting points on usage of Styles. […]

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