I’m sure there was some point in your elementary school English classes when your teacher went over the absolute rules for what words you capitalize and what words you don’t.
If you’ve been reading my blog for long, I doubt you’ll be surprised by what I have to say to that. The rules aren’t as cut and dried as your English teacher told you.
To be fair, the rules they taught you are generally true. For example, the names of people, cities, states, and countries are usually considered proper nouns and capitalized, even when used as an adjective.
However, there are exceptions to every rule, and that’s where style comes in.
Up Style vs. Down Style
Up style simply means a tendency to capitalize more words. And down style prefers more lowercase. This difference shows up most often in titles and headlines and in the titles of people and offices.
Each style guide has its own preference for when you should capitalize certain words. Most newspapers and magazines prefer an up style, while books generally employ a down style.
Check Your Style Manual
I could go more in depth with examples of both up style and down style, but the specifics of what you use will depend on what style manual you or your publisher choose to follow.
Decide Before Editing
No style manual is a definitive law for how things have to be done, so if you have any particular preferences in your writing, it’s best to talk it out with your editor before they begin working on your manuscript.
For example, Chicago style prefers down style and only capitalizes president when it’s part of someone’s name (e. g., President Biden, the president). However, if you have a character that you refer to as the President and feel strongly that that use should be capitalized, laying out your preferences ahead of time will save both you and your editor a lot of time and grief.
If you’re working with a traditional publisher, they might override your decision, but it’s still best to clarify these decisions at the outset.
Keep Track of Preferences
A style sheet is a great place to keep track of all of your preferences, whether they be spelling, capitalization, or any other departure from the norm. If you care about it, put it on your style sheet.
Most editors will create one as they work, but there’s no reason the author can’t create one too. It simplifies things to have all of the major decisions laid out in one spot.
(For more on style sheets and to download a sample template, see my blog post on the topic.)
One More Point to Consider
As you’re deciding what to capitalize and what to lowercase, remember that the subject can get complicated and even politicized. For example, capitalization can be used to accord or deny status to a term and the people or institution it represents.
For example, there are people who prefer their names lowercase (e. g., e.e. cummings or bell hooks).
And then there’s the matter of racial and ethnic groups. Is it black or Black? And white or White?
I’m not going to go into those thorny issues here. Each group has its own preference, and as our society and the relationships between groups change and evolve, the preferences change as well. However, it’s a matter to consider carefully when making your choices, and your editor should be a great resource for advising you in your decisions.
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.