You write with ease, to show your breeding, but easy writing's vile hard reading

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Aug 14, 2015

I Rest my Upper Case

Using and misusing capitals

In these blog posts I’ve tried to point out some of the worst offences PR people commit in putting together their press release.

This one is slightly different. Yes, it deals with another press release howler but this one has become so universal and so intrinsic to the press release itself that journalists have reached the point where they merely heave a resigned sigh before correcting it.

In fact, truth be told, I’ve noticed an increasing number of journalists making this mistake themselves.

I’m referring, of course, to the misuse of the capital letter.

Let me begin with the basic rule: you can’t just begin a word with a capital letter when the fancy takes you. Grammar dictates a clearly defined and limited set of circumstances when the upper case may be deployed.

We’ll start with the simple one – at the beginning of a sentence. Okay, everybody gets that right. There are only two problem areas. One is when a company comes up with a name or brand for which it insists on using lower case for the first letter, eg eBay. In this case, when eBay starts a sentence, do you obey the rules of grammar and write EBay, or Ebay, or do you bow to the brand managers and start the sentence in the lower case?

I must confess this one presents me with a dilemma: my heart says, sod the corporate image makers and stick with the rules of grammar, but my head tells me to yield before the onward march of bad things. For the moment I resolve this conflict by avoiding starting sentences with the word eBay.

Another difficulty arises with the colon. Some people seem to think that a word immediately after a colon should start with a capital. They’re wrong.

Apart from the start of sentences and direct speech, capital letters are properly used at the beginning of proper nouns. These refer to a specific person, place or thing.

In press releases the greatest misuse of capitals occurs with people’s occupations. Here it’s important to distinguish between titles and job descriptions. A title takes a capital letter, a job description does not. To avoid getting involved in a definition of what constitutes a title I recommend a simple rule of thumb: would you introduce a person by prefacing their name with the word in question? If yes, then it’s a title, if no, then it’s not. You would say: let me introduce Lady Bracknell; or, Sir George Smith; or, Mr Jones; or President Obama. You would not say: let me introduce chief executive Benson; or, IT systems co-ordinator and facilitator (North West) Charlton. The term chief executive is no more of a title that the term refuse collector. Both are merely roles or functions and both should take the lower case.

There can be some understandable confusion in certain circumstances where the same word can – depending on context – be both a title and a common noun. This is best illustrated by example: “Let me introduce you to Colonel Mustard’’; as opposed to: “Let me introduce you to Mustard, he is a colonel’’.

Just about everybody gets place names right but some people slip up over points of the compass. In normal circumstances they take the lower case as in, “I was heading north’’;  but if being used to denote a particular region, as in the South West or North East, then they are proper nouns. So those people who annoyingly refer to “north east’’ – and you know who you are – are wrong.

In my experience PR people know these rules and it’s their clients who insist on spraying capitals around as if they are going out of fashion, particularly in job descriptions. I sometimes think the philosophy is: “I get paid £300,000 a year dammit, so I deserve capital letters in Chief Executive.’’

In PR I once submitted a piece for approval and the client sent it back having capped up every single goddamn noun so that The Piece read like an 18th Century Poster to drum up Recruits or like an Edwardian Music Hall Bill.

It takes courage to tell a client he’s wrong – why not just leave to the journalist to correct?