Doing it proper: using capitals properly for people

We all know that names need capital letters. My name is Nick. See, there’s the capital ‘N’. I’m so important that I get a capital letter at the beginning of my name. That’s an easy example but it’s not always straightforward.

First, a little grammar lesson. Nouns are the names of things. They could be things that we touch (concrete nouns) or things that are more conceptual (abstract nouns). These are both common nouns.

But names are proper nouns. And those are what we’re going to examine in greater detail in this blog post.

(I did say it was a little grammar lesson! There are lots of other ways to categorise nouns and even other types of noun. But, for today, just remember this one division.)

Of course, names are easy. Your name, my name, the names of your characters and their pets all need capital letters. Places need names to but remember to check your dictionary for exactly what needs capitalising: the Netherlands, for example.

But things get a little trickier when it comes to titles and jobs. As I write this, the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is still Boris Johnson. He gets capital letters, the country gets capital letters but, in this case, the job doesn’t.

If I was to refer to him as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, then the job does get capital letters. Why? Here it is being used right before a name as a rank or title, just Captains Mainwaring and Peacock or Presidents Biden and Obama (I haven’t missed any there, have I?).

If we shorten those titles, they can stand as names: therefore we need capitals.zz

“Yes, Prime Minister, I will get the vaccine right away.”

Remove the Prime Minister part of that sentence and you can easily replace it with a name. So it needs capital letters.

“The captain said I shouldn’t panic.”

Can we replace captain with a name? No. So we don’t need capital letters here.

Let’s see if you’ve been paying attention with a little quiz. Here is a teacher. She is called Mrs Jacobs and she also happens to be the head teacher of the school.

Which of the following is correct?

  1. Head Teacher Mrs Jacobs
  2. Mrs Jacobs the Head Teacher
  3. The head teacher, Mrs Jacobs
  4. head teacher Mrs Jacobs

Head Teacher Mrs Jacobs is correct. The title comes immediately before her job and so needs capitals. Well done if you said that.

Mrs Jacobs the Head Teacher is not correct. The word the means the following is simply an adjective describing Mrs Jacobs’ job so doesn’t need capitals.

The head teacher, Mrs Jacobs is correct. For the same reasons above, we’ve just swapped the order around!

head teacher Mrs Jacobs is incorrect. For the reasons in A. Were you paying attention?

This can come up quite a bit in fiction: replace head teacher with police constable, lieutenant, lord professor, depending on genre and character.

*head teacher or headteacher. But I prefer two words.

Parents, too, can provide another sticking point when it comes to deciding whether or not to use capitals. But again, ask yourself the question: can I replace the word with a name?

“Yes, Mum. I will clean my room.”

“I want my mum!”

Kings, queens, princes, dukes and all the other royal titles follow exactly the same rules.

I’m the king of the castle, but she’s Queen Elizabeth. Sometimes, the King or the Queen is used to denote the reigning monarch; if you have kings and queens (here, lowercase!) in your story, make sure you apply this rule consistently.

Tip: note it on your style sheet.

If you’d like a professional to look over the proper nouns in your story, why not get in touch today and take advantage of a free sample edit.

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Editor and proofreader specialising in LGBTQ+ writing, both fiction and non-fiction.

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