Thursday, June 24, 2010
Are you a “Person” or a “person” kind of person?
Me, I’m a person person. My preferred capitalization style, which I share with Chicago Manual, is to energetically avoid capitalizing defined terms and positions whenever possible (and mostly it is possible). For example, it makes me squirm to see:
- “It was the University’s policy to ...”
- “The Director told the Manager of Accommodations to start again.”
Why? Overusing capitals at best suggests insecurity about writing and lack of confidence, and at worst suggests pompousness. In fact, it’s a trope used by many satirists to poke fun at those who rarely poke sufficient fun at themselves (e.g., the upper classes). Consider the following excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels:
I was surgeon successively in two Ships, and made several Voyages, for six Years, to the East and West-Indies, by which I got some Addition to my Fortune. My Hours of Leisure I spent in reading the best Authors, ancient and modern; being always provided with a good Number of Books; and when I was ashore, in observing the Manners and Dispositions of the People, as well as learning their Language; wherein I had a great Facility by the Strength of my Memory.
Just reading that paragraph makes me laugh—very directly at Swift’s intended target.
Whenever we can with clients, we recommend a lowercase style, where positions and terms don’t get capitals except in certain circumstances. According to this style, it’s okay to use capitals in really restrictive (i.e., specific) cases but not okay to use them generally. For example:
- A Master of Fine Arts but a master’s degree
- The Faculty of English, the Department of Finance but a faculty or department
- Vice Chancellor Arnold Evans but a vice chancellor (as well as “Arnold Evans, vice chancellor of the university ...”)
- “The appendix, ‘Terms of Reference,’ will follow ...” but (in normal text) “Our terms of reference for the project include ...”
And so on. Beyond matters of tone, it’s annoying to the eye to have to scale too many capitals in body text.
Consider your company’s communications—what kind of a personality are they suggesting via style conventions like use of capitals?