The Grammarphobia Blog

Capital punishment

Q: I have a grammar question about capitalization and proper nouns. I write for a community college with a long name that I use fully on the first reference. When I refer to it subsequently as “the college,” should I capitalize the word “college”? What about other institutions with names like “center” or “system” or “institute”?

A: This is a matter of style, not grammar, but my answer is that it’s wrong to capitalize subsequent references to “college” or “center” or “system” or “institute.” In these instances, the word is generic (even if it refers to a specific college or system or center) and it’s not a proper noun.

But the reality is that colleges, corporations, agencies, and such will persist in capitalizing themselves (the College, the Corporation, the Agency), whether language mavens like it or not. It’s the rare college bulletin, government pamphlet, or corporate report that can resist the urge to capitalize generic references to its parent organization and its chiefs.

One other consideration. Many organizations have their own “house style” for things like capitalization, and if you work for one you’re expected to do as you’re told.

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