Capitalization in titles and degrees

Incorrect, over-enthusiastic and, frankly, odd capitalization decisions are mistakes we see frequently in the editing world.

I think most people remember the basic rules from English class: Do capitalize the first word of a sentence, proper nouns, the first word of a quotation, titles that precede a name, days of the week, etc. Don’t capitalize the seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter), compass directions unless referring to specific regions (For example,Alabamais in the South, but is located south ofIndiana.), or general subjects in school (math, physical education, health).

Of course, the beauty of our world is that there is so much more to write about beyond the basic rules. This is also the area where mistakes start to slip in.

A big source of confusion for many people seems to come from titles and academic degrees. As I mentioned earlier, I think most people are comfortable with what to do with a title that precedes a name: you capitalize it. For example, assuming you are reading this column on Tuesday and are 18 years old, hopefully you voted or will be voting for either President Barack Obama or Governor Mitt Romney today (or, you know, Mickey Mouse if you’re a Disney-anarchist). While the choice might be difficult for some, the rule isn’t: if a title comes before a name, capitalize it.

What if the title is located somewhere else, though, or there is no name attached to it? What if, for example, your choices on the ballot were Barack Obama, president of the United States, and Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts? Since the titles follow the name, they are considered to be used as descriptors and thus no capitalization is needed. Similarly, were you to refer to the candidates as the president and the governor, you would not capitalize their titles. The exception, since there must be one, would be if you are addressing one or the other directly, in which case you would say Mr. President or Mr. Governor with a capital letter.

College degrees follow very similar capitalization rules. If they precede a name – Bachelor of Arts Jordan Fischer, for example – they get to be capitalized. If they follow a name – Jordan Fischer, bachelor of arts – they don’t. As I’m typing this, I notice that Microsoft Word wants the latter degree capitalized as well. Just ignore that little green squiggly; we’re smarter than the computer on this one. As a final note, academic subjects in degrees follow the same rules as normal: Capitalize proper nouns like English and French. Don’t capitalize general courses like mathematics unless referring to a specific course: Algebra II, Modern Dance 101, etc.