When to use capital letters – a simple guide

Capital letters are creatures of fashion. The Victorians used capital letters far more often than we do now, when style guides for papers like The Economist and The Daily Telegraph recommend a light touch with capitalisation. This is at odds with a lot of business writing I see, which uses capitals to emphasise points the writer thinks are Important and Valid. This is Wrong. Sorry, wrong.

alphabet-piece

I prefer the light touch approach to capitalisation because it preserves the readability of your text. Too many capitals, or capitals in unexpected places, merely confuse the reader.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t use capital letters. Far from it.

Always

Use capital letters:

  • At the beginning of a sentence
  • Proper names (Mary, John)
  • Places (Newcastle, Durham, Trafalgar Square)
  • Countries (France, Scotland)
  • Organisations (British Museum)
  • Months, festivals etc (Christmas, December)
  • Events (First World War)
  • Acts (Data Protection Act)
  • Titles of books (Alice in Wonderland)
  • Trade names (Cadbury, Skype).

Sometimes

Most people expect to use capitals in the circumstances in the list above. Where it gets a little more complicated is with job titles. I prefer to go with Hart’s Rules and The Economist and use capital letters with job titles only when they’re to the left of the holder’s name. For example:

  • The Head Teacher, Miss Dunn, altered the timetable.
  • The Head of Equestrian Studies, Bill Murray, bought 16 new horses.

In all other instances, job titles are lower case, so you would say:

  • Miss Dunn, who was the head teacher, altered the timetable.
  • The head of equestrian studies arranged the sale of 5 badly behaved horses.

Never

In the text
Don’t add capital letters to try and add importance to what you write. It runs the risk of looking a little desperate: that you are so unsure of the quality of what you’re writing about that using capital letters is the only way you can think of to make it sound even vaguely impressive.

Here’s an example:

  • The client asked us to design Annual Reports, Newsletters, Logos, and all other Marketing Material.

What you should write is:

  • The client asked us to design annual reports, newsletters, logos, and all other marketing material.

Colons
Another situation where the capital letter has crept in is after a colon. This is understandable if you read many American websites, as to use a capital letter after a colon is the convention there. However, it is not in the UK. I suspect it won’t be long before sheer volume of usage makes it normal practice, but for the moment, if you’re in the UK, observe the UK convention.

  • Point 1: This is wrong if you’re in the UK
  • Point 2: this is right if you’re in the UK.

These are the most frequent usages where you’ll need to think about capitalisation. If you want to read more, The Economist’s style guide is an excellent read.

Easily confused: stationary and stationery

Using stationary and stationery provides the English language with another opportunity to trip up the unwary.

Stationary

Stationary means something is not moving; it’s still. For example:

The car is stationary.

The train gradually slowed, until it was stationary.

Stationery

Stationery refers to the things you have hanging about in your office—envelopes, writing paper etc. For example:

We never have enough stationery in the office.

Shopping for stationery is one of my favourite pastimes.

How do you remember the difference?

Remember that envelopes start with an E, and stationery, with an E, includes envelopes.  If you write that your car is stationery, you’re telling the world it’s made of paper, envelopes and paper clips. That’s a possibility of course, particularly if you have a vintage car made by British Leyland in the 1970s, but it’s unlikely.

 

 

 

 

Easily confused: practice/practise

As I proofread documents, there are some problems that come up again and again, and I’m hoping that these blog pieces will give you quick and easy ways to remember the difference between words you muddle up.

Practice and practise are often confused in British English (American English helpfully uses just the one form, practice). Practice is a noun, and practise is a verb. Here are some examples of correct usage:

Practice

Practice is a noun.

She hated piano practice.
Practice makes perfect.
She sold her accountancy practice.

Practise

Practise is a verb.

They hadn’t practised their spellings.
The more you practise, the easier playing the piano will be.
We’re practising our cookery tonight.

When it goes wrong

Here are some real life examples where it’s gone wrong:

We have in place ongoing training and development practises.
We adopt a wide range of supervision practises.

In both these cases, the word in question is a noun, and so the sentences should read:

We have in place ongoing training and development practices.
We adopt a wide range of supervision practices.

How to remember the difference

There is a simply way to remember the difference. I use the sentence I’m going to choir practice to practise singing to help me remember which word is which. I know choir practice is a noun*, and that I therefore need the ‘c’ form. There’s also the ‘c’ there in ‘choir’ to remind me which word to use. If I add in what we’re going to choir practice to do, that makes it even easier, with the in practise (the verb) matching the ‘s’ in ‘singing’.

I’m going to choir practice to practise singing.

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*Actually it’s a compound noun, but for the sake of simplicity I’m ignoring that for the moment!

NOTE: this piece refers to British English. American English uses practice for both noun and verb forms.