My colleague Eleanor Parkinson (Manchester Editorial) recently wrote an excellent blog post [edit in January 2019: no longer available] about the overuse of capital letters to begin words, particularly in business writing. I’d like to dig deeper into this, to look at some of the likely reasons why people often fall into this trap.
I say ‘likely’ because, without doing a big survey or having access to the inner workings of people’s minds, I can’t be sure that these are the reasons. But there are certain patterns of what we might call ‘hypercapitalisation’ that crop up so often, I think these explanations seem fairly credible.
Reason #1: Adjacency
If a term consists of two words or two sets of initials, and the first of these begins (correctly) with a capital, it’s easy to think – maybe subconsciously – that the second should as well. This would explain why people often write such things as ‘an IT System’, ‘British Politicians’ and ‘American Football’. But these terms aren’t titles or proper nouns, so the second word in each case doesn’t need to be capitalised.
(The latter is very common, but there really is no reason for the capital ‘F’. If you’re unconvinced, try this: if you were just writing ‘football’ – or ‘golf’ or ‘swimming’ – in mid-sentence, would you start it with a capital?)
Tip: Unless the entire term is a name of an organisation, brand etc., only capitalise the words that you would always capitalise anyway (‘British’, for example).
Reason #2: Familiarity
There are some words that we often see capitalised within titles of institutions. Some examples: ‘Leeds City Council’, ‘Metropolitan Police’, ‘University of Nottingham’. This is probably why some people capitalise these words in other contexts: ‘the people of our City’, ‘your local Council’, ‘he joined the Police’, ‘she went to University’ and so on. These are generic terms, not the titles of specific cities, councils, police forces or universities: so, no capitals required.
Tip: This kind of word only needs a capital if it’s part of a title (or being used as a shortened version of a title).
Reason #3: Importance
This is where business content writers tend to get carried away. There’s usually no need for things like ‘the Company’ and ‘our Customers’.
An exception is where legal-type wording is being used, for example, in a contract or a set of terms and conditions. If things such as ‘the Company’ and ‘the Customer’ are in a list of defined terms, it makes sense to capitalise them later on, as a way of referring back to those definitions. Also (as with reason #2), if ‘the Company’ is meant as shorthand for a name that actually includes the word ‘Company’, the capital ‘C’ is fine.
Tip: Importance isn’t a good reason for starting a word with a capital. If you really want to emphasise it (though I suggest you do this sparingly), use italics, bold, a different colour or maybe full capitals.
Reason #4: Amorphous entities (?!)
‘The Financial Sector’, ‘the Energy Industry’, ‘the Private Equity Market’ – terms such as these are often capitalised, as if they were the names of actual organisations. In reality, though, each of them is just a loose label, covering an undefined number of organisations – so they don’t need capitals. The financial sector has no CEO, the energy industry has no organisation chart, and the private equity market has no head office.
Tip: Only use capitals for the names of actual organisations, not for collective terms such as these.
Reason #5: Initials
If a term is often known by initials, these are usually written as capitals. So, it’s tempting to use those capitals when writing it in full: we then end up with the likes of ‘Key Performance Indicator’ (KPI), ‘Customer Relationship Management’ (CRM) and ‘Private Finance Initiative’ (PFI). There’s a good reason for using capitals in a set of initials – it signals that they are initials, not letters in a word – but this is no reason to use them in the complete words as well.
Again, though, there is an exception. If you’re writing the words in full as a way of explaining the initials, it makes some sense to use the capitals to clarify this, for example: ‘a set of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)’.
Tip: If a term is sometimes shortened as a series of capital initials, this doesn’t mean you should also use the capitals when writing it in full.
But does it matter?
You might have noticed that I haven’t said any of these capitals are wrong – only that they’re unnecessary. So, is there really a problem with using them?
Yes, I say. As with many other things in writing and editing, I suggest it’s more a question of doing what’s best for the reader, rather than relying on notions of right versus wrong.
The thing to remember about capitals is that they grab the reader’s attention. Sometimes this is a good thing – for example, to draw attention to a brand name. If you overuse them, though, they can clutter up the page, making it look too ‘busy’. The more things you draw attention to, the less attention they’ll get. Also, a capital can have a jarring effect if the reader isn't expecting it.
Additionally, unnecessary use of capitals can look pompous, perhaps amateurish. In marketing content and other business writing, it can make it look as though you’re screaming too loudly about your importance.
All in all, then, to help the reader along and to make the right impression: go easy with those capitals.
There might well be other common reasons for overuse of capitals. If you can think of any, or if you have any other thoughts on this topic, I’d be glad to hear from you …