Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Capital Affair

Even the savviest writers often have trouble figuring out when to capitalize certain types of words.

Seasons—Names of the seasons: fall, winter, spring, and summer should only be capitalized when they are part of a proper name.  For example, 

     Summer Olympics

     Fall Semester 

Otherwise, season names are not capitalized:

     I’ll start studying for the bar exam in the summer.

The Internet—This one is a bit tricky, but according to the Chicago Manual of Style, the term “Internet” is capitalized because it refers to one large network; however, the term “website” is generic and, therefore, is not capitalized.

Earth—When the term “earth” is used to refer to the land itself (i.e. the ground), it is not capitalized.  When the term “Earth” is used to refer to the planet, it should be capitalized.  

            He dug in the earth for buried treasure.   

Views of Earth from space are amazing.

Mother et al.—Terms like “mother,” “father,” “sister,” and others should be capitalized only when used in place of a person’s name.  If the term follows a possessive pronoun like “my” or “your,” the term is not capitalized.  

            The defendant’s mother alerted police to her son’s whereabouts.

     I will await Mother’s call about Susan’s bar exam results.

Federal/state—terms like “federal” and “state” are capitalized when used as part of an official organization name.*  For example,

     The Federal Bureau of Investigation is hiring.

     Many non-citizens do not understand how the federal government operates.

     Businesses must be careful to comply with all federal and state laws.

     The state will be furloughing workers, including judges.

Directions—Directions (e.g. north, south) should be capitalized only when referring to specific regions.  For example,

            The defendant was raised in the South.

     To get to the courthouse, drive south on First Street and turn left at the third light.

Job Titles—Titles should be capitalized when used before a person’s name, but not when used in place of a person’s name.  For example,

            I met President Barack Obama last year.

     The president will address the nation at 9:00 p.m.

     The bill was sponsored by Representative John Smith.

     All representatives from Georgia will attend the meeting.

*There are mixed opinions about capitalization of the word “state” when it refers to a party to litigation.  I think the best practice is to capitalize “State” in these situations.  For example,

     The State argues that sovereign immunity applies to bar the claims. 

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