Use capitals wisely

Do you get confused about when to capitalise words?

There are times when words must be capitalised, but often capitalising words is simply a style choice. Because people find it quicker and easier to scan and understand lowercase words, many organisations now prefer to keep the use of capitals to a minimum.

Read my four tips on when and how to use capitals, which will help you produce consistent and readable writing every time.

Use a style guide

Style guides contain choices about how to write, format and design documents. Organisations use style guides to:

  • enforce best practice in the organisation’s writing
  • ensure consistency between writing produced by different people within the organisation
  • ensure the organisation has a consistent voice
  • ensure their documents, publications and web pages look professional and create a good impression.

Find out if your organisation has its own style guide or has a preferred style guide it wants staff to use. If you work for a government department in New Zealand, you can access its preferred style guide online.

Most style guides explain when and how to use capitals. Organisations’ own style guides may include a list of words those organisations commonly use, which shows whether they are used in uppercase or lowercase. Get into the habit of referring to the style guide when you’re unsure whether to capitalise a word or phrase.

Capitalise proper nouns

Proper nouns are the names of people; places; and things such as organisations, committees, schemes, events, buildings and brands. Proper nouns are always be capitalised. Here are some examples:

  • Auckland Council is represented on the working group.
  • Every council has a representative on the Safety Working Group.
  • Eilud Kipchoge won the Virgin Money London Marathon in 2019.
  • More than one billion people use Facebook.

Only capitalise terms if they are proper nouns

This is most common mistake I see people make with capitals. Unless your style guide directs you to, do not capitalise terms that are not proper nouns.

While you must capitalise the name of an organisation (such as the Ministry of Justice), when you talk about organisations in general terms capitals are unnecessary. For example: ‘The ministry helps the government by administering the court system and legal aid system.’

Similarly, although you capitalise the names of people and places (such as Judge Peters and the Lower Hutt District Court), do not capitalise positions and places when you mention them in general terms. For example: ‘She’s now a high court judge but she used to work in a district court.’

Be consistent

Using a style guide will help you ensure that you use capitals consistently throughout your writing. For example, a style guide will explain how your organisation likes to present its headings and subheadings. It is increasingly common for organisations to present titles in ‘sentence case’; this means only the first word and proper nouns are capitalised:

How to use capitals in your writing: four rules to remember

There will be times when you’ll need to make your own style choices about capitals. When you’re writing a long document it’s easy to forget the choices you’ve made. Make a note of them so you remember to use capitals in the same way next time. Find our more about why consistency matters.

I hope this post has helped you understand when and how to use capitals. I help governments, NGOs and international aid agencies by creating documents that make them run better. Contact me to see how I can make a difference to your organisation.