The Grammarphobia Blog

Aunt-ing and uncle-ing

Q: When a possessive pronoun like “my” is used with a title like “aunt” or “uncle,” is the title capitalized? Example: “At 10, my uncle Bob (or my Uncle Bob) will arrive by train.” My students like concrete answers. Ha!

A: This is a matter of style rather than grammar, so we’ll go to a style guide for an answer.

In the example you give, according to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), “uncle” should be lowercased: “At 10, my uncle Bob will arrive by train.”

The reason for this can be confusing. Normally, a kinship word like “uncle” is capitalized if it appears just before a personal name, as in this version: “At 10, Uncle Bob will arrive by train.”

But your example is different because of the “my.” In that case, the noun phrase “my uncle” and the personal name “Bob” are in apposition—that is, they’re equivalent, with one explaining the other.

In sentences like these, the kinship word is lowercased, according to the Chicago Manual. Here’s how Chicago explains the rule:

“Kinship names are lowercased unless they immediately precede a personal name or are used alone, in place of a personal name. Used in apposition, however, such names are lowercased.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples, among others:

(1) “Let’s write to Aunt Maud.”

(2) “She adores her aunt Maud.”

(3) “I believe Grandmother’s middle name was Marie.”

(4) “Please, Dad, let’s go.”

Now let’s look at each of those examples.

In #1, the kinship name (“Aunt”) is capitalized because it comes right before the personal name.

But in #2, “aunt” is lowercased because the phrase “her aunt” is in apposition to “Maud”—it explains who she is. (The presence of a possessive pronoun like “my” or “her” is a tipoff that the kinship word is probably an appositive.)

In #3 and #4, the kinship word is used alone in place of a personal name, so it’s capitalized.

As you know, a kinship word used in a generic way is lowercased, much as we would use “child” or “brother” or “daughter.” Examples: “Fred’s uncle is a teacher” … “Tell your uncle that dinner is ready” … “My friend’s aunt and uncle moved to Ireland” … “Maud is my favorite aunt.”

In many ways, kinship names are treated much as we treat other kinds of titles. As we’ve written before on our blog, the trend is to lowercase words like “mayor” and “president” except as part of a name.

Here, too, the title is lowercased when it’s used in apposition, according to the Chicago Manual.

Chicago uses these examples: “Joe Manchin, governor of the state of West Virginia,” and “Richard M. Daley, mayor of Chicago.”

However, many newspaper style guides recommend capitalizing “governor” and “mayor” in those two examples.

Sorry if this answer is not concrete enough for your students. Ha!

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