The lowdown on capital letters

Posted on 27 February 2017 by Lucy Gregory

In a nutshell, minimise your capital letters.

Your document should be easy to read and capital letters are distracting. Yes, they are. Having said that, knowing what to capitalise can be complicated. There are only a few rules; the rest is stylistic preference.

My suggestion is to pick a reputable online style guide, such as The Economist or Guardian, and follow that. If you’re really keen, buy yourself a copy of New Hart’s Rules. In the meantime, this should help.
 
 

General principle

Use lower-case letters unless there’s a specific reason not to.
 
 

Proper names

Proper names include personal names (eg John Smith) and organisation names (eg Attica).

Some proper names include words that don’t need capitals in other contexts, eg Waterloo Station, the Bank of England , Guy’s Hospital. If you don’t write an entity’s full name, use lower-case letters: the station, the bank, the hospital.

You don’t need to capitalise words such as company, department, board and team unless the word is part of a proper name (eg Department for Transport) or defined in your document.

Industries and sectors are also in lower case: ‘We work in financial services, pharmaceuticals, retail and telecoms.’

And just because a phrase is capitalised as an acronym, doesn’t mean it’s capitalised when written in full, eg M&A = mergers and acquisitions, L&D = learning and development, CGT = capital gains tax.

While we’re on the subject of tax, irrespective of HMRC’s website, taxes are in lower case. If you don’t believe me, check the legislation.
 
 

Job titles

If you write someone’s job title alongside their name, capitalise it, eg Prime Minister Theresa May, Managing Director John Smith.

If you write the job title on its own or as a description, it’s in lower case, eg ‘Theresa May is the current prime minister,’ and ‘We are replacing John Smith as our managing director.’
 
 

Place names and geographical areas

Only capitalise recognised geographical regions, places and countries. This isn’t always easy because even official websites can differ in opinion. If you’re not sure, check an up-to-date dictionary or map. Compass points start with a lower-case letter unless part of a recognised geographical area.

It’s the south-east of England but London and the South East and Northern Ireland.

I write London regions in lower case, eg north London and south London, but it’s up to you.
 
 

Seasons

Seasons are in lower case unless used as part of a proper name, eg the Spring Collection 2017.
 
 

Government

Capitalising government – or not – is personal style. I always write government in lower case, eg the UK government. Even if you choose to capitalise the word, governmental should always be in lower case.
 
 
 

Lower-case vs lower case

You might wonder why sometimes I write lower-case and other times lower case. This is to do with whether the word is used as a compound adjective (lower-case) or a noun (lower case). If you’re interested in hyphens, I recommend my fascinating blog series:

What’s the difference between a hyphen and a dash?

Hyphens to create new words and phrases

Hyphens with prefixes

Hyphens bits and bobs