Grammar Hammer: How to Capitalize Formal and Job Titles in Your Writing

June 24, 2015


In the war over proper grammar, one of the biggest minefields writers must navigate is when to capitalize a person’s title.

For PR and marketing professionals, there’s no way to avoid title capitalization drama. Press releases, blog posts, media rooms and email pitches often include references to people at your organization. How and when to capitalize their titles can lead to heated debates among colleagues.

Here are two key questions to ask when considering whether or not a title should be capitalized.

1. Is it a formal or occupational title?

You first need to determine whether a title is formal or occupational.

Formal titles most often convey that the title has been bestowed upon a person because of academic achievement (doctors) or authority (nobility, military rank, and political or religious leadership).

In contrast to formal titles, an occupational title is typically not bestowed upon a person. Rather, it describes what someone does for a living.

If a person has a formal title and it precedes their name, the title should always be capitalized.

RIGHT: His Royal Highness Prince William celebrated his 33rd birthday this week.

WRONG: I read an article last week about prince William and his wife. (Prince, in this case, should be capitalized.)

For the most part, you should not capitalize a formal description (king, prince, senator, etc.) when it is used without the person’s name. “Prince William is widely considered to be the next king instead of his father, Prince Charles.”

However, there are some formal titles, especially with nobility, that are considered alternative names for the individual. In these cases, even when that person’s name is not used, the title should be capitalized. For example, “Princess Charlotte is The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s second child.”

If an individual formerly held a position of power or is about to hold that position, the formal title should be capitalized before their name. However, do not capitalize qualifying words such as “former,” “deceased,” or “acting.” An example of this is: “The man in the next room is former President Bill Clinton.”

2. Is it a job title or job description?

When it comes to occupation titles, whether or not you capitalize comes back to context. Titles should be capitalized, but references to the job are not.

For instance, if you are using a job title as a direct address, it should be capitalized. “Do you think I should start running on a treadmill, Doctor?”

Title references that immediately precede the person’s name should also be capitalized. “We are so excited to have Vice President of Operations Barbara Smith present at the conference this year!”

However, if the reference to a person’s job is placed elsewhere in the sentence — such as set off from the person’s name by commas or included as an earlier or later mention in the sentence — it should be lowercase.

In the following four examples, it is correct to lowercase the description of the person’s job:

  • The marketing manager is Joe Smith.
  • Joe Smith is a marketing manager.
  • This is Joe Smith, marketing manager at XYZ Company.
  • The president will be traveling this week to promote his company’s latest product.

The only exception that some organizations opt to make is when referencing an executive or C-Suite level employee. A writer may decide to follow the so-called “ego rule” and capitalize an executive’s job description instead of keeping it lowercase. For instance, “Sheila Smith, Vice President of Finance, presented the award.”

One thing to keep in mind when considering whether or not you want to follow the ego rule is that it goes against AP Style guidelines and typically viewed as incorrect by many members of the media.

There are many things to consider when it comes to capitalization. Let’s pull it all together with one final example:

I am a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire (talking about the job). Manager Cathy Spicer (occupational title) is a regular contributor of articles about grammar and press release writing tips. She is descended from King Henry III (formal title) and still periodically claims that she is a princess (common noun).

Although navigating the capitalization minefield can be difficult, doing so is worth the effort. Using proper capitalization, punctuation and grammar is the first step in writing powerful content for your brand. Download our white paper Best Practices for Creating Media-Friendly Content for more press release writing tips.

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