Capitalization Confusion

Misunderstanding of or confusion about proper capitalization plagues many writers. Even an accomplished editor can’t often revert to what “looks right” or “feels right” because we as a culture are so confused by capitalization that we often see published work in which the capitalization is wrong. In addition, different publications have different preferences when it comes to capitalization, and many publishers make conscious choices to break the rules for stylistic or political reasons.  So, rather than paging through the whole Chicago Manual of Style or the stylebook of your choice, I’m going to lay out three of the most common capitalization errors, along with the correct style.

  1. Professional Titles – As tempting as it is, your job title does not get capital letters unless your name is attached to it. For example, “Doctor Zhivago” has capitals, but “the doctor” does not. Barack Obama is the president, which means he is President Barack Obama.  I used to be the managing editor of I liked to refer to myself as the Managing Editor, but as such, I wasn’t a great editor, as that capitalization was incorrect. (CMS: 7.22)
  2. Medical Conditions – Medical conditions do not receive capitalization unless they are named after someone, in which case only the name is capitalized and not the whole condition. For example, only the D in Down’s is capitalized when referring to Down syndrome, not the S in syndrome. Specific–but still generic–conditions do not receive capitalization: bipolar disorder, heart disease, alcoholism. (CMS: 7.117)
  3. Terms of Endearment – Most sources will say that terms of endearment, when used in place of someone’s name, do not get capitalized: “Will you get that for me, dear?” This one is easy to mess up because when using a family name, such as mom or dad, in place of a name, it does get capitalized: “Are we there yet, Mom?” This lack of clarity may be why you’ll get an array of answers if you Google “capitalize terms of endearment.” The style guides I have at my disposal don’t mention terms of endearments at all. If you have a definitive source on this rule, please leave a comment and enlighten me!

Due to the vast array of stylistic preferences or the potential difficulty of finding a reliable source for any given capitalization rule, you’ll see lots of items capitalized every which way. In the end, the most important thing is consistency–but consistency is even better when it’s consistently right.