Imagine a world with no capitals. In fact, that world exists – certainly in the text threads with my two daughters, which read like some kind of free verse, or avant-garde poem (well, their halves do, at least).
In fact, the term ‘avant-garde’ is a case in point. Should it be ‘avant-garde’, ‘Avant-Garde’ or even ‘Avant-garde’? As an artistic and creative movement that has been formally recognised, the term ought to be capitalised, you would think, in the same vein as the ‘Renaissance’, ‘Impressionism’ and ‘Post-Impressionism’ (or is it ‘post’?). But a distinguishing trait of the so-called ‘avant-garde’ at the turn of the 20th century was its unorthodox and boundary-pushing nature – so keeping it lower-cased is all about breaking the rules.
Today, what and when you capitalise in your writing often boils down to the perceived importance of the word. It’s not as straightforward as: proper nouns are capped, and everything else is not. When drafting a report, it is important not only to generate a style guide that lists preferred spellings for the sake of consistency, but also to consider what rules you wish to apply to capitalising nouns, both proper and ‘improper’.
What are some considerations?
- Headings: Do you want to use initial caps for every word, known as ‘title case’, for chapter headings and sub-headings, or do you prefer ‘sentence case’, whereby only the first word of a heading (and any proper nouns in it) are capitalised? For many writers, particularly of government reports, title case is felt to be more ‘report-like’ and, as such, taken more seriously by the reader. But it could also be said that using sentence case for headings is easier on your reader – assigning a capital letter to a word makes the reader stall a little and pay attention to its importance.
- Government vs government: Whether to capitalise ‘government’ can be open to interpretation. The rule is that if you are referring to a current government, as opposed to government more generally, you capitalise the word. So, if for example you are able to replace ‘the government’ in your sentence with ‘the current UK Government’, then up it goes. By this same token, when plural ‘governments’ are being referred to, choose lower case.
- Job titles: These are upper-cased when you are referring to a current post-holder, often along with the person’s name – so, for example, the current Director or Chief Operating Officer. The rules blur for some, though, when referring to a former executive director, as opposed to a current one, or someone who holds a directorship for an outside company or organisation.
- Acronyms: These are for the most part fully capitalised (exceptions include MoD, SBTi, among others) but keep in mind that just because a title or term has earned itself an acronym, this doesn’t always mean it is capped when spelt out in full – so, for example, ‘MI’ and ‘management information’.
A helpful rule of thumb is to capitalise official titles of people, organisations and institutions, committees and organised movements or programmes. Include examples of those that are likely to come up in your report in your style guide. You might also want to address whether, after citing the official title in full, subsequent, short-hand references to it merit capitalisation or not – so, for example, do you want subsequent references to ‘the strategy’, ‘the policy’, ‘the programme’ or even ‘the report’ to be capitalised, or not?
Remember your reader again here, and the fact that they inadvertently slow down slightly each time they come across a capitalised word: a report peppered with ‘the Strategy’ and ‘the Policy’ can be cumbersome for the reader, yet it might also be a way to clarify for the reader that you are referring to ‘the Strategy’ that is the focus of your report, say, and not a previous year’s strategy.
There are plenty of other areas where you will want to establish an approach to capitalisation, not least in bibliographic references or sources cited in footnotes – whether you are going to capitalise each word in a document title, for example, and what to do if there is a subtitle after a colon (which sometimes might not attract initial caps).
The rules change, unhelpfully, when citing a source in a language other than English, such as in French or German. Also, if your report contains cross-references, do you want your reader to ‘see Section XX’ or ‘see section XX’? Directions (northern, southeastern, south of the South Circular) again require thought – they are usually lower-cased, but when referring to proper names of regions, you will want to pop them up (the West, Southeast Asia). Accuracy Matters can help you discern the best approach for your particular report.
Once you have considered the range of rules and a consistent approach to capitalisation for your report, never mess with capitals in directly quoted matter. So, if you’ve decided that your ‘policy’ is going to be referred to in the lower case, you nevertheless retain the upper-casing that may have been applied in another, quoted report.
Equally, don’t forget that when incorporating a quotation that begins with a capital letter into a sentence that you’ve written, there is a means to drop the opening capital letter down so that your sentence can flow, as shown below:
- Vincent wrote, in a letter to his sister: ‘One can speak poetry just by arranging colours well, just as one can say comforting things in music.’
- Vincent wrote, in a letter to his sister, that ‘[o]ne can speak poetry just by arranging colours well, just as one can say comforting things in music.’
Capitalisation is an art in itself, and as long as you establish clear rules and stay consistent you’ll always be clear in your communications. Here at AM we have helped countless clients to clear up their approach to capitalisation. If you’re interested in hearing more just drop us a line.
Picture by Towfigu Barbhuiya on Unsplash