The Grammarphobia Blog

Capital punishment

Q: I edit newsletters for a group of local school districts. In my experience, educators tend to be quite capital happy, but I am often able to change their minds if I can cite a rule. I usually follow The Chicago Manual of Style, but I can’t find an answer to this question: In referring to “the class of 2009 valedictorian,” should “class” and “valedictorian” begin with capital letters?

A: There’s no reason for these words to be capitalized. Schools love to toss around uppercase letters, which is why we see so much of this: “the College,” “the University,” “the Faculty,” “the Art Department,” and so on.

Companies and governments, as we know, do the same (“the Company,” “the Union,” “the City”).

This is a style issue rather than one of grammar, and styles often differ. The house styles at book publishers and newspapers, for example, vary widely in their approaches to capitalization.

The New York Times formerly capitalized the word “president” in reference to the head of our government, but no more, except as part of a name. Thus: “President Obama” and “Mr. President,” but “the president.”

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, has some interesting things to say about all this. First, he notes: “For writing that goes into print, the standards – in capitalization more than in most other aspects of written English – lie in house styles.”

He adds, however, that these days there’s “a modern trend away from capitalization, resulting in a minimalist rule: unless there’s a good reason to capitalize, don’t.”

In fact, he says, the tendency to overcapitalize is losing ground even in academia: “the University of Colorado at Boulder recently declared that its internal style is to always make university lowercase when it stands alone.”

Bravo, Boulder! And I’d encourage anybody who’s in charge of house style for an organization, company, or publication to go minimalist, too.

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