--for those who speak English as their second language or who just want to improve their writing
(Graphical version of Quirks of English)
The Meter Readers in my town never rest; I got a ticket and went to court, and the Receptionist told me I’d have to talk to the Judge. The Deputy ushered us in, and the Bailiff said, "All rise!" A Prisoner and a Warden were standing behind a glass wall next to a Police Officer. The Judge was telling me to pay the Cashier, when all of a sudden the President walked in. We were surprised and we hardly recognized him because he was standing behind The Lady Who Takes Tickets.
Capitalization is used in general to emphasize important things. But if we want capitalized words to retain their potency, we must use capitalization sparingly. For example, we wouldn’t want the President to walk into a paragraph and not even be noticed. In English, common nouns are usually spelled in lowercase letters. Capitalization is like a visual trumpet flourish to call attention to something particularly important. If it is used without apparent good reason, it can add a note of pomposity.
It can be difficult to tell when to capitalize and when not to. In fact, this is one of the most difficult usage issues that we English writers face. The basic hard and fast rule is that when a more formal title appears before a name as a part of that name, it is capitalized, and when it follows the name, it is not. This rule is not as hard and fast as we would like, because there are several exceptions, but it can still eliminate uncertainty in a lot of cases. Here is the main rule and its corollary:
Civil, religious, military, and professional titles (and those of nobility) are capitalized before a name:
Examiner Jones (law)
Vice-Presidential candidate White
baseball player Jones
maintenance man Smith
Similar titles following the name of a person are usually not capitalized, except for the following special cases:
Title of a head or assistant head of state:
Ronald W. Reagan, President of the United States
the Chief Magistrate
Charles Robb, Governor of Virginia
the Lieutenant Governor
Title of a head or assistant head of an existing or proposed National governmental unit:
George P. Schultz, Secretary of State
the Chief or Assistant Chief
Titles of the military:
General of the Army
Supreme Allied Commander
Joint Chiefs of Staff
the commanding general or the general (military title standing alone not capitalized)
Titles of members of diplomatic corps:
Walter S. Gifford, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
the American Ambassador
the consul general
Title of a ruler or prince:
Elizabeth II, Queen of England
Exceptions--Titles that are not capitalized in general practice:
Charles F. Hughes, rear admiral, U.S. Navy; the rear admiral
Lloyd H. Elliott, president of George Washington University; the president
C.H. Eckles, professor of dairy husbandry; the professor
Patricia Rowles, chairwoman of the committee; the chairman; the chairperson; the chair
These rules and examples were excerpted from the Government Printing Office (GPO) Style Manual. As can be seen, the titles that are capitalized following names or when standing alone without names are the most prestigious titles in our society, and capitalization is apparently added to emphasize their importance. Thus, it’s no surprise that “the Queen” is capitalized. But why general, and not rear admiral? Isn’t an admiral as good as a general? This is what makes capitalization difficult. Sometimes the rules are based on logic, and sometimes they are a matter of common practice. The only thing to do is to try to get familiar with the rules and refer to them often.
When writing for Government publications, writers should follow the Government Printing Office Style Manual. When writing for other publications, writers should follow those style guides but should be consistent in their capitalization choices.
For a general discussion of capitalization, including of titles and the examples cited in this article, try the GPO Style Manual online.