Writing Style – To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize

BizWritingTip reader: “In my line of work, I often write letters to committee members and physicians something like this: ‘We are pleased to hear that you accepted Gayle Sawyer into the Internal Medicine Program.’

“My question is should the word program have a capital letter? We have noticed on occasions that program was typed with a cap and without a cap. What is the correct way?“

BizWritingTip response: First, a general answer, the trend in Canada with regard to capitalization is the modified down style. In other words — as always — you should capitalize all official titles, names, religions, languages, races, places, and addresses. However, if you are using shortened versions of titles or are using a proper noun in a plural form, opt for the lower case. The same holds true for job descriptions.

Government of Ontario (proper name)
Ontario government (shortened version)
City of Edmonton (proper name)
cities of Edmonton and Calgary (plural form of proper noun)
Doctor Skipper (title)
doctor (job description)
board (informal reference)

But let’s get back to the question relating to the word “program.” According to The Canadian Press Stylebook, you should capitalize universities and colleges but not their departments.

University of Toronto
McGill medical school
department of engineering
English department
faculty of education

The book also advises to use the lower case for names of courses and programs.

political sciences program
ethics course

Using this information then, you would write: “We are pleased to hear that you accepted Gayle Sawyer into the internal medicine program.”

However, if your organization dictates that certain words must be capitalized — for example, Doctors, Board, Committee, or Region — naturally, I would expect you to follow your organization’s style.

Word Choice – Into, in, or in to

BizWritingTip reader: “When do you use in versus into? I also have seen in to. Are they interchangeable?”

BizWritingTip response: These are tricky questions – often requiring some thought on the part of the writer. The preposition “into” is used to imply movement or change or contact.

Examples (correct)

Please have the brochure translated into French. (This statement implies a change.)

I went into the boardroom yesterday. (This statement implies movement.)

I ran into Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie. (Contact – lots of contact)

“Into” can also refer to time.

Example (correct)

Surely, winter will not continue into April.

“In” implies a position or location.

Examples (correct)

The figures can be found in the annual report. ?The managers are in the gym.

“In to” are two separate words. The “in” part relates to the verb before and the “to” part relates to the upcoming word.

Examples (correct)

All reports should be sent in to your manager for approval. (“Sent in” is a verb phrase.)

Roger dropped in to see me yesterday. (“Dropped in” is also a verb phrase.)

Let’s go in to dinner. (You couldn’t go into dinner unless you were planning to climb into the oven.)

Here’s a trick: If you can drop the in without losing the meaning, the correct term will be in to. (Let’s go to dinner.)

Aren’t you glad we got in to this?


There are numerous English words that have the same meaning but are spelled/spelt differently. For example, in Britain and in many other English speaking countries people write “centre” and “organize.” But in the U.S., writers use “center” and “organise.” Why?

The reason is interesting. In the early 1900s, the American industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie believed English could become a universal language. He, therefore, funded a group of 26 well known Americans – including the author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) – to discuss the issue.

This organization decided English would be easier to learn if words were spelled phonetically and silent letters (e.g., “e” in “axe”) were removed. They called themselves the Simplified Spelling Board.

So as to not overwhelm people with an entirely new way of spelling, the board released a list of 300 words whose spelling should be changed immediately. It was intended that other words would be changed at a later date.

The schools welcomed the change, and the American President Teddy Roosevelt (known as an extremely bad speller) sent a letter to the United States Printing Office ordering it to use the new spellings.

Unfortunately, the American Congress opposed the changes, and the media turned the issue into a long-running joke. President Roosevelt then rescinded his order to the Government Printing Office.

The Simplified Spelling Board continued to meet for several more years. However, the popularity of phonetic spelling began to decrease after the government failed to support Roosevelt. But when browsing the list of 300 words today, it’s interesting to note that many of the “new” suggested spellings are in use today in the U.S.

Take a look at the original 300 words.

Grammar Tip – Punctuation With Lists

What punctuation should I use with a bulleted or a numbered list? This is a commonly-asked question.

Although many writers like to use bulleted lists in their business documents, list writing is difficult. You must be consistent. Your lists must contain all sentence fragments or all complete sentences. Your lists should never be a mixture of ideas.

Correct (list of complete sentences)?Your speech should include the following points:

  • Our organization’s success is based on a proven record of relationship building.
  • We use established techniques for identifying potential partners.
  • We have seven branch offices across the country.

These points are complete sentences so they end with periods. Semicolons are considered dated.

Correct (list of sentence fragments)

At the meeting, we will discuss:

  • Budgeting
  • Recruiting
  • Marketing

As these points are sentence fragments, there is no punctuation. Whether you capitalize the first letter after the bullet or not is optional. When you insert a bulleted list, the first letter is automatically capitalized. You can overstrike each letter if you wish and lowercase it. However, it is not necessary. As long as the first letter in each point is consistent, you are fine. Personally, I like the capital letters.

The style of a few organizations is to place a period after the final point and to use lowercase first letters. It is not wrong. It’s just a little extra work.


At the meeting, we will discuss:

  • budgeting
  • recruiting
  • marketing.

    Grammar Tip – Commas and “and”

    BizWritingTip reader: When is it ok to use a comma before “and”?

    BizWritingTip response: Many people tell me that they have been told never to put a comma before “and.” However, as we all know, never say “never.”

    When listing a series of ideas in a sentence, you separate the thoughts with commas. But when you come to the last point, should you add a comma as well as the word “and”? The answer is: “It depends.”

    If the reader needs the comma for clarity, then add it. If the message is clear without the comma, then don’t use it.


    Our plane landed at Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. (The reader easily understands that these are three separate locations.)


    We need to focus on retaining our existing members, recruiting new members, and updating our website. (The comma before the “and” emphasizes that there are three distinct areas.)

    Also Correct

    We need to focus on retaining our existing members, recruiting new members and updating our website. (Because there is no comma before the “and,” the emphasis on three distinct areas is now reduced. You may even find a busy reader pays little attention to the middle point. Is this your goal?)

    Note: Try to avoid writing sentences that require more than four pieces of punctuation. This means you can have three commas in a sentence. (The final period counts as the fourth piece.) If your sentence requires four commas, it means you are putting too many ideas in one sentence, and a busy reader will have trouble following your thoughts. You are probably better off with two sentences or a list.

    No. You cannot break the no-more-than-four rule by removing all commas. Readers need their information chunked into easily digestible bites. This is the purpose of commas.

    Grammar Tip – Commas With Introductory Thoughts

    Mary Ann’s question: “Should there be a comma in the following sentence: ‘If you’re driving tired you’re driving impaired’?”

    BizWritingTip response: Years ago, writers were told to place a comma wherever they would take a breath. But this could sometimes be confusing as people don’t always have the same breathing patterns. And people learning English often insert too many commas.

    There are now firm rules for the placement of commas. One rule is to always place a comma after an introductory thought in a sentence.

    Examples (correct)

    If you are driving tired, you’re driving impaired.
    In my opinion, too many writers forget this rule.
    As you requested, I eventually answered your question.
    Although you may have seen sentences without a comma after the introductory thought, the sentences were wrong.
    Therefore, don’t forget to add a comma.

    Note: If the sentence is inverted and the phrase is placed after the main thought, the comma is not needed.

    Examples (correct)

    Too many writers forget this rule in my opinion.
    I eventually answered your question as you requested.
    Sentences without a comma after the introductory thought are wrong although you may have seen some written this way.

    Grammar Tip – Most Is or Most Are

    Deane’s question: “Is it okay to write ‘Most of the population speaks English.’ Or should it be ‘Most of the population speak English.’

    BizWritingTip response: This question deals with subject and verb agreement and collective nouns.

    Words such as all, none, any, some, more and most are considered pronouns. The verb following may be singular or plural depending on the noun these pronouns represent. (The noun usually shows in the of phrase that follows.)


    None of us are going to the conference. (The “of us” phrase makes the pronoun and verb plural.)

    Some of the report was inaccurate. (The “of the report” makes the pronoun and verb singular.)

    Most of the people are available. (The word “people” is always treated as plural.)

    However, the word “population” may be treated as a single or as a plural noun. If the writer is using it in the sense of a whole unit (a collective noun), the word and the following verb are singular.


    The population speaks English. (Everyone does.)

    But when you place most of in front of “population,” you are no longer referring to a whole unit. Therefore, the word and the following verb are plural.


    Most of the population speak English.