What to Capitalize

Improperly capitalizing nouns is one of the most common errors I come across. Just because a word is important or distinctive doesn’t mean it should be capitalized. Only proper nouns—those that name specific people, places, and things*—are capitalized. Sounds easy, right? Dig on the errors (in italics) I’ve come across in the past week:

  • Don’t leave it up to the Federal Government
  • She’s an expert in Reflexology and Reiki
  • The center offers tai chi and Yoga
  • homeowners might consider Xeriscaping
  • the course offers licenses in Landscape and Irrigation
  • it was the equivalent of an Iron Lung
  • We attended local Irish Festivals
  • then she was diagnosed with Down Syndrome
  • Fitch’s Farm Market in Avon harvests Kohlrabi
  • Her undergraduate degree is in Accounting with minors in Programming and English.
  • such as the President’s lectern
  • he obtained a degree in Political Science
  • A slight by Sissi, the bitchy Empress of Austria
  • The event will mark the 100th Anniversary
  • Experience the Evolution vs. Creation argument in “Inherit the Wind”
  • Enjoy the ancient Japanese floral art of Ikebana
  • This festival favorite has won Audience Awards the world over
  • When we started, it was all Red and Golden Delicious apples
  • The Ancient Greeks and Romans argued
  • The Cost Management process, employed by many companies

But don’t some of these—reiki, xeriscaping, ikebana—seem like the name of specific things? They do, but compare them to similar nouns that you would automatically lowercase: reiki and meditation, xeriscaping and landscaping, ikebana and assemblage. The words’ counterparts may seem more normal, but the things they describe are equally as common.


*Making this slightly more complicated is that some nouns that would at first glance seem common but are based on the names of specific things should also be capitalized: Port (the type of wine is from Portugal), Parmesan (originally from Parma, Italy), Chippendale furniture (after English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale), and Pilates (developed by Joseph Pilates).

10 Responses to “What to Capitalize”
  1. Pat says:


    Spot-on, sir. Rampant capitalization is among my most hated writing mistakes.

    A couple of notes, though, for the sake of conversation:

    – Many publications capitalize apple varieties, treating them as brand names. I wonder what you, a guy interested in precision of meaning, have to say about that. My take: “Red Delicious apple” is more precise than “red delicious apple,” in the same way “Coke” is more precise than “cola.”

    – I wonder if the “Evolution vs. Creation” example was a style choice by a writer wanting to present this as the practical name of the court case in question.

    Just a couple of discussion items. Thank you for another fine post.

    • cbgaines says:


      As your comments suggest, capitalization is far more complex than my post suggests. It’s one of the challenges of writing simple posts about the language’s various dimensions. To keep the conversation going:

      • Your point about the name of the apple is well taken, and I can’t completely reject it. I would argue that “red delicious” has gained such currency and describes such a common thing that setting it in lower case is the way to go. Further, “red delicious” isn’t, thankfully, a trademark, as is “Coke.” Trademarks are a whole other branch of this conversation I elected to gloss over.
      • The second point is trickier. Maybe the writer was making a point about the name of the case, or maybe he was trying to get at the Platonic ideas behind “evolution” and “creation,” rather than the words themselves. The Platonic senses of words is another topic I thought I’d skip over for now.

  2. Pat says:

    Dig, dude. Dig.

    The publication for which I work covers the apple industry pretty thoroughly, and we capitalize all the apple varieties. I asked a copy editor why, and he said we treat them as brand names even though they’re not. I believe some of them actually are trademarked, such as the delicious but ridiculously named Jazz apple.

    Anyway, I’d probably opt against capitalization of apple varieties if it were up to me (It’s not). We also cover the wine industry, but we don’t capitalize “merlot,” “chardonnay” or “petit sirah.” Go figure.

    • cbgaines says:

      The names of wines drive me crazy. I’ve made a personal decision that most of them should be lowercase (no one would capitalize “pilsner” or “ale,” right?), but I sometimes feel downright lonely in making this ruling. And then I torture myself further by capitalizing “Port” because the name is derived from its country of origin. This is a wicked business.

  3. Sophia says:

    Craig a.k.a Dr. Caps, why does the New Yorker and NY Times capitalize Internet?

    It always seems like it should be lowercase.

    • cbgaines says:

      Sophia, you’ve hit me in my weak spot and placed my age. I still support capitalizing “Internet” and “Web,” although the ground is shifting beneath my feet. I came of age as an editor when the Internet was the new singularity, the thing and “place” that everyone, everywhere was discussing, inhabiting, exploiting. “Internet” was more than just a computer network, it was a newly discovered territory, a real Atlantis, a virtually reconstituted Pangaea. It was such a phenomenon that it demanded capitalization: there was only one Internet.

      But in 2009, it can be argued that the Internet is more precisely compared to the ocean, the sky, the atmosphere. It’s everywhere and everything, and we don’t capitalize “everywhere” and “everything,” so why capitalize “Internet”?

      The answer might disappoint you: habit. Consistency. Comfort. I think that in the next decade or so, everyone will follow Wired magazine, which lowercased it way back in 2004, the heady days of Web 2.0. But I’ll probably be one of the last holdouts, grabbing young copy editors by the collar and saying, “You punk. I’m so old that I had a Lycos e-mail address. The day I lowercase ‘Internet’ will be the day I’ve reached storage capacity on my Gmail account.”

  4. geri says:

    love this site. . .just found it, thanks to mediabistro.com.

    one disagreement: Down Syndrome is a title of a diagnosis. you wouldn’t have Down, though i have suffered from being down 🙂

    what’cha think?

    • cbgaines says:

      Thanks for the comment! This is where things get tricky. “Down” is capitalized because it’s from name of the physician John Down, who first described the syndrome. Just don’t ask me why the popular usage is “Down,” but then we go all possessive with “Parkinson’s disease.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: