Writing Style – Capitalization of Names

BizWritingTip reader: “I have a question about the capitalization of names. There is a raging debate in our office about the use of capitalization with a word such as ‘town.’ For example, if someone wrote: ‘The Town is responsible for collecting taxes’ should the ‘t’ be capitalized?”

BizWritingTip response: This is a style issue — not a grammar one. In other words, whatever you do will be considered correct from a grammar perspective. Style is what gives writing consistency.

When I went to school, the guideline was “when in doubt — capitalize the word.” Now, it is the reverse. My favourite style guide for capitalization is the small book CP Caps and Spelling produced by The Canadian Press. This book promotes a modified down style. This means that you capitalize names of departments and agencies of government bodies, companies, and associations only if the full name is included. But you should lowercase common nouns when they appear alone.

Examples (official names)
Government of Ketchup
Town of Salsa
Region of Tabasco
City of Mustard

Examples (not official names)
Relish government
The town
The region
The cities of Salt and Pepper
The company
The department

On a side note: There is an interesting thought in the marketplace today. Using all lower case letters for a company’s name may make the company seem more hip and friendlier to its customers. If you drive through any industrial area today, look at the signs on the buildings. You’ll be surprised at the number of companies whose names no longer start with a capital letter.

However, let’s recap. This is a style issue. If your college, town, department, or government agency decides it wants to make an exception and capitalize a common noun that refers to itself, then that’s fine. “The town is responsible for collecting taxes.” “The Town is responsible for collecting taxes.” Both are correct.

But in the interest of fairness — and in reducing “raging debates,” I believe all organizations should have a short style guide that states their preferences.