Capitalization Errors in Business Writing: Not Just a Joke … It’s Your Credibility

In one of my former lives, I was the editor for a fantasy sports web site that only had one full-time writer (me), and between 20 to 30 freelance writers at any time.  Of those 30, there were exactly ZERO professional writers in the group. Instead, I had doctors, lawyers, a boatload of accountants (go figure), salesmen, and IT guys—all of whom were brilliant in their prospective fields and about fantasy football. Unfortunately, nearly all of them struggled to grasp the fundamental rules of punctuation and grammar. Their use of commas were … seriously … like crimes against humanity. But, second to comma abuse were the capitalization errors I dealt with on a daily basis.

During the National Football League season, we wrote daily content and one big weekly report for our subscribers, giving them opinions and advice about the weekend’s upcoming football games. The lawyers and sales guys, especially, loved capitalizing every word that they thought was important. More than once, I received articles where entire paragraphs had every word capitalized. (They. Were. Trying. To. Be. Very. Emphatic!) It was my duty to send their articles back to them with a reminder that frequent and frivolous use of capitalization looked bad and hurt our credibility.

Over four weeks of the preseason and 17 weeks of the regular season, that was a lot of arguing with my writers about cleaning up their articles so I wouldn’t have to. (The pay was seriously nominal, so they were basically doing it for the love of football and the site. “Firing” them was out of the question.)

The point is, our subscribers didn’t care that my guys weren’t professional writers by trade so capitalization errors were more than just a fleeting embarrassment for us. They caused our information to be dismissed and our professional reputation to suffer. While the majority of my staff tried to do better immediately, there were still a few Type A++ personalities that pushed it as far as they could to see if I would break. When I refused to publish their work for the week, I finally got it through to them that playing too fast and loose with writing rules was a risk we couldn’t afford.

The same goes for you in your job. Mistakes in your writing can blow your image, credibility and damage your chances for success. Clean, error-free writing will make you stand out, so why wouldn’t you try to do your best to follow the rules?

Here are the 10 most common capitalization errors in business writing. If you’re not sure if something you’ve written is correct, hopefully your company has its own style guide to give you answers. Remember, always follow your company’s  style guide in your business writing if there is a discrepancy with the rules listed below.

The 10 Commandments of Capitalization

  1. Capitalize proper nouns
  • Names of individual people, organizations and buildings
  • Geographic locations such as countries, cities and states
  • Names of historic events, periods and documents
  • Government bodies or agencies
  1. Capitalize most calendar events
  • Do capitalize days of the week, months of the year and holidays
  • Do not capitalize the seasons (e.g., spring, fall)
  1. Capitalize names of geographic regions but not the cardinal directions
  • Boston, the university hub of the Northeast, is about 200 miles northeast of New York
  1. Capitalize people’s titles only when they appear before the name
  • President and CEO Jill Marquez, but Jill Marquez is president and CEO
  • The President of the United States is an exception to this rule
  • Your company’s practice may vary
  1. Capitalize all initials and acronyms, even if the name they stand for is not capitalized
  • Write “information technology” lowercase but “IT” in all caps; “public relations” lowercase but “PR” all caps.
  1. Capitalize most names related to scholastic endeavors
  • Education degrees: MA, PhD (check your style manual on use of periods)
  • Do capitalize names of specific courses: He registered for Organic Chemistry with Professor Carter
  • Don’t capitalize general courses of study: He couldn’t decide between physics and chemistry
  1. Capitalize names of specific departments within a company, but not general department names
  • Stephanie is head of the Marketing department
  • Stephanie works in marketing
  1. Names of family relationships are sometimes capitalized
  • Capitalize relationship names when they are used in place of a specific person’s name or
    come before a proper name: I asked Dad if I could borrow the car keys, but Uncle Jim gave me his
  • Do not capitalize relationship names that do not name a specific person: “Immediate family” refers to parents, siblings and children but not to uncles and aunts, cousins or grandparents
  1. Capitalize important words of titles
  • Titles of works of art use initial capitals; this includes books, journals, articles, newspapers and magazines, poems, songs, plays, TV and radio shows and many more
  • “Important words” are not necessarily long words, but all nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives and adverbs are. Prepositions and conjunctions are not capitalized unless they begin the title: To Have and Have Not. Mother Is Always Right.
  1. When in doubt, check your company style guide!

It’s not just the grammar snobs—when you make capitalization errors, people may not mention it to you, but they definitely notice! That’s why it’s essential you make sure that everything you write is mistake-proof and error-free!

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