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When Do You Capitalize References to People?

If human beings were called only by their names, life would be much simpler, at least in terms of capital letters and English grammar rules. But most people pick up a few titles and some relatives as they journey through life. When do you capitalize these titles?

Sorting out people's titles in your writing

Some titles start with capital letters because they’re attached to the front of a name. In a sense, they’ve become part of the person’s name:

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Ms. Woods, Chief Grammarian Woods, and Apostrophe-Hater-in-Chief Woods.
Allow me to introduce Mr. Eggworthy Henhuff, director of poultry at a nearby farm. Next year Director of Poultry Henhuff plans to run for state senator, unless he cracks under the pressure of a major campaign, in which case he'll run for sheriff.

Now what’s going on with the capitals? The title Mr. is capitalized because it’s attached to Eggworthy’s last name. In general, lowercase titles are those not connected to a name.

Notice that Director of Poultry is capitalized when it precedes Eggworthy’s last name but not capitalized when it follows Eggworthy’s name. Director of Poultry Henhuff functions as a unit. If you were talking to Eggworthy, you might address him as Director of Poultry Henhuff.

So the first Director of Poultry in the previous paragraph functions as part of the name. When the title follows the name, it gives the reader more information about Eggworthy, but it no longer acts as part of Eggworthy’s name. Hence, the second director of poultry in the previous paragraph is in lowercase.

No self-respecting rule allows itself be taken for granted, so this capitalization rule has an exception or two, just to make sure that you’re paying attention. You must capitalize very important titles even when they appear without the name of the person who holds them. What’s very important? Definitely these:

  • President of the United States

  • Secretary General of the United Nations

  • Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

  • Vice President of the United States

  • Prime Minister of Great Britain

Of course, there’s some leeway with the rule on titles, with the boss or editor or teacher making the final decision. (When in doubt, check with the authority in question.) The following titles are often but not always lowercase when they appear without a name:

  • representative

  • ambassador

  • consul

  • justice

  • cabinet secretary

  • judge

  • mayor

Nameless titles that are even lower on the importance ladder are strictly lowercase:

  • assistant secretary

  • dogcatcher-in-chief

  • officer

  • ensign

When capitalizing a hyphenated title, capitalize both words (Chief Justice) or neither (assistant secretary). One exception (sigh) to the rule is for exes and elects: ex-President and President-elect

Writing about family relationships

It’s not true that Elizabeth’s grandma was imprisoned for felonious sentence structure. Uncle Bart took the rap, although his brother Alfred tried desperately to convince Grandma to make a full confession. “My son deserves to do time,” said Grandma, “because he split an infinitive when he was little and got away with it.”

What do you notice about the family titles in the preceding paragraph? Some of them are capitalized, and some are not. The rules for capitalizing the titles of family members are simple. If you’re labeling a relative, don’t capitalize. If the titles take the place of names (as in Uncle Bart and Grandma), capitalize them.

The word my and other possessive pronouns (your, his, her, our, their) often indicate that you should lowercase the title.

Tackling race and ethnicity in writing

If you come from Tasmania, you’re Tasmanian. If you come from New York, you’re a New Yorker. (Don’t even ask about Connecticut.) Those examples of capitalization are easy. But what about race and ethnicity? Like everyone else, grammarians struggle to overcome the legacy of a racist society and its language. Here are some guidelines concerning capitalization and race:

  • White and Black (or white and black) are acceptable descriptions, but be consistent. Don’t capitalize one and not the other. Always capitalize Asian because the term is derived from the name of a continent.

  • European American, Asian American, African American (and the less popular Afro-American) are all in capitals.

  • Mexican American, Polish American, and other descriptions of national origin are written with capital letters because the terms are derived from country names.

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