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A Word, Please: One rule of capitalization: When in doubt, use lowercase

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Unnecessary capitalization is a common complaint of copy editors.
(Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“I hesitated to write you because I’m sure you’ll catch many errors.”

“You’re probably noticing a ton of mistakes I’m making right now.”

“Please excuse the many embarrassing grammar errors you’ll probably find in this email.”

I hear stuff like this a lot. No one is 100% secure in their grammar knowledge, so it’s easy to feel insecure when exhibiting your language skills to someone who gets paid to find mistakes.

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But if you think you can guess how editors scrutinize your writing, guess again. We’re not judgmental about most of the “errors” people worry about making — wrong verb tenses, wrong word choices, the occasional comma splice or dangler.

As we know well, everyone makes mistakes. Plus, when a sentence comes out naturally, that’s usually a good argument for it, whether it conforms to stickler rules or not. Casual speech and writing are fine with us.

We can be extremely peevish — just not in ways you’d expect. Take this recent exchange between copy editors on social media.

“When people ask what the job of a copyeditor entails, I usually tell them that it’s mostly just lowercasing phrases like Bachelor of Arts in Political Science,” tweeted linguist and editor Jonathon Owen.

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I saw a chance to commiserate and I grabbed it. “Director of Human Resources, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Tacos Al Carbon,” I replied, followed by a clip of Neil Patrick Harris pretending to shoot himself in the mouth.

Mededitor, a veteran editor who doesn’t use his real name on Twitter, mimicked an attitude he has encountered: “But the Regional Manager is an important person — we HAVE to uppercase her job title!”

Owen again: “I’ve had to explain multiple times that Vice President Bob Smith gets capped but vice president of advancement Bob Smith does not.”

Me again: “I’ve had to explain multiple times that just because the chef created his own recipe for vegetable lasagna doesn’t make it Vegetable Lasagna.”

As you can see, what really annoys editors is the stuff we have to fix over and over and over again. And there may be no better example than knee-jerk capitalization.

Sometimes, unnecessary capitals are rooted in a writer’s sense of deference, like using Regional Manager to describe your regional manager.

Perhaps some writers fear violating someone’s copyright. Hence, Vegetable Lasagna.

Often, though, writers just believe that job titles, recipe creations and the like take capital letters as a rule. Not true.

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“Civil, military, religious, and professional titles are capitalized when they immediately precede a personal name and are thus used as part of the name,” states the Chicago Manual of Style. “Titles are normally lowercased when following a name or used in place of a name.”

This can get tricky. You might call Vice President Bob Smith exactly that. You might greet him as if the title were part of his name: “Nice to see you again, Vice President Smith.” But you wouldn’t do the same once “advancement” is in the title because: “Nice to see you again, Vice President of Advancement Smith” just isn’t something you’d say. So because this title isn’t used like it’s part of a name, it’s lowercase.

As for that lasagna, here’s a guideline I recommend: If you can lowercase something, do. The chef’s vegetable lasagna could be patented and copyrighted, but you can still refer to it with plain-old generic words: vegetable lasagna.

A menu item with a name like Death By Chocolate or Steak Dianne, on the other hand, can’t be described in generic English as death by chocolate or steak dianne. So those get capped.

When in doubt, the solution is simple: Err on the side of fewer capitals. Any weary editor who sees your writing will appreciate it.

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