Challenge: Capitalizing Job Titles and Units

A reader named Michelle sent me an excellent capitalization challenge. She received a brief article (indented below) to publish in a magazine, and she wants to follow standard capitalization rules. 

Which categories of capitalization would you change in Michelle's example? Would you change job titles, divisions, or anything else? (I have fictionalized the details.) 

Decide on changes before you read the rules below. 

Detective John Harris began his Law Enforcement career as a Reserve at the Clover Ridge Police Department in 1997. He moved to Greenville and became a Reserve for the Harrison Police Department in 1999. After testing, John became a full-time Police Officer for the Harrison PD in 2000.

John joined the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in 2002 as a Sheriff’s Deputy and was promoted to Detective in 2012. He has worked in Property Crimes, Financial Crimes, and Auto Theft before arriving in Family Violence. We are delighted to add John to our unit, but we are heavy hearted about saying goodbye to Detective Dale Estes.

 

These rules can help you capitalize correctly in challenging writing samples like Michelle's:

1. Avoid unnecessary capitalization. Only capitalize something when you have a good reason to do so. Liking the way a word looks does not pass as a good reason.

2. Capitalize proper nouns. Proper nouns are the unique names of specific people, places, and things. For instance, if "Clover Ridge Police Department" is the proper name of the police department, it deserves capitalization. 

3. Don't capitalize common nouns. A common noun is a label but not a specific, unique name. "Law Enforcement" is not a specific name in Michelle's piece–it is a career. That's why it should be lower case rather than capitalized. The same goes for "Reserve" and "Detective" when they do not come before an individual's name. They are generic rather than proper names. 

4. Capitalize a title when it comes directly before a person's name, not separated from the name even by punctuation. "Detective Dale Estes" is correctly capitalized. In contrast, "our retiring detective, Dale Estes" would have a lower case title. 

Those rules resolve most of the challenges in Michelle's piece. One that remains involves Property Crimes, Financial Crimes, Auto Theft, and Family Violence. What would you want to know about those terms before you capitalized them? 

I will post my revision tomorrow. In the meantime, feel free to comment or post yours. 

Do you see rampant capitalization in the pieces you read or edit? 

 

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March 20 update: Below is my revision. It assumes that the names of the police departments, sheriff's office, and work units are official. 

Detective John Harris began his law enforcement career as a reserve at the Clover Ridge Police Department in 1997. He moved to Greenville and became a reserve for the Harrison Police Department in 1999. After testing, John became a full-time police officer for the Harrison PD in 2000.

John joined the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in 2002 as a sheriff’s deputy and was promoted to detective in 2012. He has worked in Property Crimes, Financial Crimes, and Auto Theft before arriving in Family Violence. We are delighted to add John to our unit, but we are heavy hearted about saying goodbye to Detective Dale Estes.

Questions? Comments? Read more about capitalizing departments

Lynn
Syntax Training 

 

49 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for another interesting post, Lynn.

    I have seen a growth in ‘rampant capitalisation’ in recent years in the material I receive to edit, and in official, published documents. To see it grates almost as much as ‘shouting’ by writing all in capitals.

    I wonder if the cause could be poor formal training in basic written English rules, leading to a lack of confidence in the writers: they resort to writing what ‘looks right’? Perhaps this same insecurity, and the constant exposure to errors in published documents, has also resulted in the confusion over apostrophes and pluralisation?

    So much to learn (and re-learn)…

    Paul

  2. “He has worked in Property Crimes, Financial Crimes, and Auto Theft before arriving in Family Violence” is butchered in a few ways, although I do understand the message that’s being conveyed. He worked in those departments, or sections, or units prior to assuming his current position. If it’s an employee magazine publication, maybe the readers already understand the vernacular of those areas mentioned and so capitalizing them as “department names” makes sense. Otherwise, I would rewrite with more explanation.

  3. Hi Paul,

    I agree with your suggestions of possible causes.

    In my experience, even inexperienced writers benefit hugely from style sheets that make capitalization decisions simple. For the sample passage, if a style sheet told writers not to capitalize job titles unless they appeared before a name, many errors would evaporate.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  4. Martha, good thinking about that sentence and the audience.

    One small change I would make in that sentence is to replace “has worked” with the simple past tense “worked.”

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Lynn

  5. Hi Lynn,

    Thank you for the capitalization challenge.

    How would you rewrite the challenge and include “unit” or “department” or somehow make the status of those units more clear?

    My first thought would be to write “he worked in three different units, Property Crime, Financial Crimes, and Auto Theft; before arriving in Family Violence.”

    On a different note, I like your idea of having a challenge, but haven’t seen many of them on your blog. Do you post them regularly? Have you thought of creating a category for them so that a reader could look over them for practice and for ideas about what to help others with??

    If you did that, you might have to keep the challenge and the answer in separate posts??

    I have been following your blog for a few months. I appreciate all the resources you have for writers.

    I’m looking forward to your next challenge.

  6. Aaron, thank you for your valuable comment. I appreciate your suggestion about creating a challenges category. If you see this comment and have time to reply, please tell me more about your idea of putting the answer in a separate post.

    I have used both separate posts and comments to provide the solution. This time I decided to include the solution in the original post after waiting a day. I am not sure which approach is more helpful to readers.

    I like your question about making the units or departments clear. I would change the punctuation slightly:

    “He worked in three different units–Property Crime, Financial Crimes, and Auto Theft–before arriving in Family Violence.” The dash is perfect punctuation to set off a nonessential series.

    Again, thanks, Aaron.

    Lynn

  7. Hi Lynn,

    Thanks for the advice about dashes. I don’t think I use them enough.

    How about writing a refresher: How to Put More Dash in Your Writing?

    As for putting the challenge answer in a separate post, my idea was just that if someone finds your challenge a few days late, they don’t immediately find the answer. They could try their hand at the challenge and then click a link to the post with the answer.

    Just a thought.

    Thanks for your help with writing.

    Aaron

  8. Hi Lynn, interesting suggestions. I have a question about capitalization. in the sentence “She is a Volunteer Instructor and a Supply Instructor”. Is the capitalization correct, or should it be “She is a volunteer and supply instructor: so should the two titles be capitalized?

  9. Hi Lynn, here is another way. I am more keen to get a feedback on the capitalization part. She is a Supply /Volunteer EFL Instructor. Is this capitalization right? Best wishes,

    Suzan

  10. Hi Suzan,

    I don’t see any reason to capitalize the instructor’s roles. The only term in your examples that I would capitalize is “EFL.” However, I would prefer to spell out the abbreviation so everyone understands it.

    Lynn

  11. Hi Lynn,

    What is your opinion on the short text below. Would you change anything?

    At Company X, I worked for the European Management Board. Senior Management required support implementing a new European communications strategy. As Executive Assistant, I supported our Leadership Team in implementing this.

    I find it difficult to decide to capitalize or not. The terms “European Management Board”, “Leadership” etc. refer to a particular group of people in a particular company. Within that company, the terms are always capitalized but what about outside?

    Thanks for your opinion.
    M

  12. Hi Melanie,

    I would capitalize this way when communicating outside the organization:

    –European management board
    –senior management
    –executive assistant
    –leadership team

    I would capitalize “European Management Board” if it is indeed the official name of a group. “Leadership team” is generic.

    I apologize for the delay in responding.

    Lynn

  13. Hi Sally,

    No, I would not capitalize a title after an individual’s name. That’s according to all the latest style guides. However, a school’s style may be different, so it makes sense to ask the school’s communications department.

    Lynn

  14. Writing novels with military names and titles throughout. Do I capitalize? “Yes, Sir.” “No, Sir.” “Yes, Sergeant.” “No, Sergeant.” Where the proper name is left out or implied. ex., Colonel de Vries and Colonel. A proper name. In the Colonel’s opinion… Where “who” is implied.

    Thanks

  15. Stephen, when addressing people in a scene, capitalize a title but make words such as “sir” lowercase:

    –Yes, Sergeant.
    –No, sir.

    Do not capitalize a title when used to replace a name:

    –in the colonel’s opinion

    These rules come from “The Gregg Reference Manual.” Other style guides may differ.

    Lynn

  16. Thanks Lynn. Believe it or not, I have struggled with this for years and could find no consensus in the English reference manuals. I have stories to tell, but I was not an English major in college. lol

    So thanks again and I hope I may bring other questions to you in the future.
    Stephen D. (Steve) Church

  17. Steve, you are welcome. You will often not find consensus in reference manuals. I recommend getting one reference manual that seems to have most things you seek, then relying on it. Notice that I checked only one manual, not the many on my bookshelf.

    Lynn

  18. Hi Lynn.
    I read in one of your posts the you “enjoy” English. Me too. I hear music in good prose. I hear music especially in rhyming poetry.

    BUT! “Editing” prose is to me a great, tedious pain, which in my opinion should be done backwards! If not, the mind skips over words and phrases that are familiar. And after reading a manuscript 50 times, it all becomes overly familiar. lol

    How do you handle editing prose?

  19. Hi Lynn,
    I have a question re: capitalization that deals with components in a website. This is a training manual, and the website has various menus and sub-menus with options and tools. For the manual, would I always capitalize the menu steps I am referring to, treating them as proper nouns?

  20. Hi Chris,

    I can’t quite envision what you are describing, but my vote is for consistency. I believe initial caps will work fine if you are consistent with them.

    That said, I wonder whether a step might appear as a link in the middle of a sentence, where a capital letter would seem wrong.

    I’m sorry I can’t be more definitive.

    Lynn

  21. Hi Lynn – can you help with this one? Here is the sentence: Acme Company introduces Jane Doe as the National Director of Business Development for the group of companies.

    -or-

    Acme Company introduces Jane Doe as the national director of business development for the group of companies.

  22. Hi Mike,

    If you capitalize job titles, you capitalize all the words–except short prepositions (of, in, for, to), conjunctions (and), and articles (a, an, the).

    Three examples:

    Director of Clinical Services
    Assistant to the Treasurer and CFO
    Vice President for International Shipping

  23. What about when you define a name with two words, such as “Subject Property”, then later on in the same document you refer only to “Property” or “Subject” for ease of reading. Should these be capitalized or lower case since they are not the full “Subject Property” but you are referring to something that you defined with a capital letter?

  24. Hi Chris,

    It’s hard for me to picture “Subject Property” in a document. I can’t be certain without seeing the words in context.

    My guess is that I would not capitalize the words. However, if either “Subject” or “Property” is the official name of something, it should be capitalized.

    Lynn

  25. How about when it comes to the department’s position, which is correct – Financial Crimes coordinator or Financial Crimes Coordinator. Thank you so much for your post.

  26. I hope you can help me. I’m doing some marketing for a writers group, and one of the posters has a line that says, “Join author Jane Doe for . . .”

    Does the word author need to be capitalized in that sentence?

  27. Late to the party! Nice post and I would like to add, regarding the following passage:

    He moved to Greenville and became a reserve for the Harrison Police Department in 1999. After testing, John became a full-time police officer for the Harrison PD in 2000.

    I have always been taught that if you use an abbreviation, such as “Harrison PD”, that you must first introduce it at first usage, like this:

    He moved to Greenville and became a reserve for the Harrison Police Department (HPD) in 1999. After testing, John became a full-time police officer for the HPD in 2000.

    And I would never abbreviate half-heartedly; “Harrison PD”

  28. Hi Kevin,

    You were taught correctly. However, some style guides recommend against that approach. For example, “The Associated Press Stylebook” states:

    “Do not follow an organization’s full name with an abbreviation or acronym in parentheses or set off by dashes. If an abbreviation or acronym would not be clear on second reference without this arrangement, do not use it.”

    “PD” is a standard abbreviation for “police department.” That makes me think that “Harrison PD” is fine.

    Lynn

  29. Should standard documents such as ‘Heads of Terms’ and ‘Sale and Purchase Agreement’ have capital letters if they are referred to in the middle of a sentence? Eg “I prepared the Sale and Purchase Agreement for the client”?

    Your advice would be appreciated. Many thanks.

  30. Hi Julia,

    I recommend not capitalizing these. They are documents–not titles. You would not write “We finished the Annual Report” or “Let’s review the Business Plan.” By the same logic, it makes sense not to capitalize your documents.

    However, if your company style is to always capitalize them, it is probably not worth the effort to change people’s minds. Consistency is often easier and just as valid as correctness.

    Lynn

  31. I’m also late the party! I’m struggling with an indirectly related issue – our Benefits Department wants to capitalize everything related to plan names, so Retirement Plan, Group Long Term Disability Plan, Workers Compensation, Health Savings Account, etc. Help! Thoughts? Only when using the full formal plan name? Or never?

    Thanks,
    Esther

  32. Thank you for this informative post.

    Would I capitalize job titles in the following sentences:

    I am excited to submit my resume for the vacant manager of operations planning position in your esteemed department. Based on the stated qualifications, I am confident that my sound understanding of…..

    As the assistant manager of operations, I lead a team responsible for…

  33. Hi Gina,

    According to THE GREGG REFERENCE MANUAL, “badge” should be capitalized. Here’s the rule: “Capitalize a noun followed by a number or a letter that indicates sequence.” There are exceptions, but “badge” is not one of them.

    Lynn

  34. I have read all the above with great interest.

    However, I am still somewhat confused re the appropriate use of caps…

    EG: Attempts to coordinate with Traffic and Auto Theft proved useless… (caps or lower case?)

    EG: The mayor’s office and the Chief of Police… (caps or lower case?)

    Thanks!

  35. Hi Susan,

    Good questions. If “Traffic and Auto Theft” is the name of a department (or two departments), those words should be capitalized, as you have done.

    In the phrasing “the mayor’s office and the chief of police,” those words should not be capitalized. They are using specific titles but not with the individuals’ names. (Perhaps “The Office of the Mayor” is the specific name of the office–if that’s true, capitalize that phrasing when you use it.) The same follows here: “I spoke with the mayor and the chief of police.”

    Hope that helps.

    Lynn

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