If the Cap Fits

The principle is to use as few capitals as possible, because they make the copy look ‘spotty’ and that bit harder to read. As a rule of thumb, if you are talking about a specific office or body, use a cap. If you talking about the office or body in general terms, use lower case. For example: the Bishop of Rochester, but a meeting of bishops; the Minister for Pensions but ‘ministers decided to . . .’

To cap or not?

  • acronyms: these are groups of initials forming a word which you can say, such as Nato, Aids and Asbo, and are written with an initial cap and lower case. However, if the acronym forms another familiar word, it avoids possible confusion to cap up the whole thing, such as NICE, SATs and PIN. (Incidentally SATs should not be followed by the word ‘tests’ nor should PIN be followed by the word ‘number’). An apparent exception was UKIP, which at first was capitalised even though you can say it and it cannot be confused with another word, but over a few months Ukip became the norm: an interesting example of language in motion. Some acronyms are so familiar that they have become words in their own right, such as radar, and obviously you would not give that a cap. Nimby: the plural is Nimbys, not Nimbies. It’s a made-up word so does not have to follow the rules. The same applies to any other acronym ending in ‘y’.

  • arty things take a cap, such as Renaissance, Impressionism, Impressionist painter, Cubism, Old Master, the Fauves, Picasso’s Blue Period, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Pop Art.

  • company names: some companies have decided to drop the initial cap, such as adidas. This can look very odd in copy and headlines so I would tend to keep the initial cap. However easyJet and eBay are ok. A lot of this is getting used to names, so use your judgment about whether it looks peculiar.

  • geographical terms: cap Earth only if it is the formal name for the planet, not in usages such as ‘Where on earth have you been?’ Do not cap sun, moon, universe, galaxy or solar system, which are generic astronomical terms, not names. Thus the Earth’s moon does not take a cap, and nor does the sun. North/South Pole: Technically these are simply geographical terms which would not normally be capped, but they have gained the status of place names and so are capped. But if you are referring to ‘the poles’ or indeed ‘poles apart’, stick to lower case.

  • illnesses and conditions are often named after a person, and should take a cap for the name only, eg Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Bell’s palsy, Down’s syndrome, Munchausen’s syndrome.

  • other sets of initials: When the initials do not form a word, such as MRSA, leave them all in caps.

  • political terms: Government is capped if you are talking about the regime currently in power as a decision-making entity, eg ‘The Government will decide on Tuesday’, but l/c in all other contexts, such as ‘a government-backed organisation’ or foreign governments. Cabinet, Cabinet ministers; Minister for Children, but ministers and ‘a ministerial aide’; Home Secretary, but former home secretary; Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister but acting/former prime minister. General Election is traditionally capped, but not local elections or by-election. Most publications cap Bill, Act, White Paper (draft Bill), Green Paper (discussion document), Private Member’s Bill. Usual constructions: Left-wing, Right-wing, the Left of the party, ‘he is on the far Left’, or ‘the far-Right grouping’.

  • religious matters: God, but godfather etc. It is conventional to cap up ‘He/His’ in reference to God or Jesus. Heaven and Hell take caps only in a Christian context, so do not cap ‘this ice cream is heaven’ or ‘it’s hell out there’. An exception is ‘Hells Angels’ (no apostrophe). Christian, Christianity, but unchristian. Other religions also get the courtesy of a cap, eg Islam, Buddhism, as do their followers, eg Muslims, Buddhists. Satan has a cap, and so does the Devil if you are using it in the context of the 'individual' known as Satan, but not in phrases such as 'what the devil?' or 'the devil is in the detail'. Holy Grail takes caps only if you are referring to the bowl used by Jesus at the Last Supper (also caps). If you are talking about your common or garden holy grail, use l/c. Bible for the Christian holy text, but bible if it is being used in the sense of a reference work, such as ‘the gardener’s bible’. Also Torah, Koran and other holy books. Mecca for the Muslim holy city, but otherwise lower case, as in ‘a mecca for teenagers’.

  • things named after people: where possible use lower case, eg beef wellington, caesarean (with or without ‘section’, and not ‘caesarian’), machiavellian, mackintosh or mac, morse code, sandwich, shanks’s pony, tarmac (for the road surface; see Trademarks) toby jug, wellington boot, but Pandora’s box. Svengali: Cap only if talking about the character in the novel; use l/c if you are talking, for example, about a ‘pop music svengali’.

  • things named after places: This is a tricky one and may involve using your judgment. Dogs: It is not necessary to cap up dalmatian, rottweiler, dobermann, or weimarana, but it feels different with British breeds such as Airedale, Yorkshire terrier, Scottish terrier and West Highland terrier. I think German shepherd takes a cap too, though I have no objection to the name alsatian. Cheeses should be lower case if they come from abroad, eg gorgonzola, camembert, monterey jack. By and large British varieties eg Lancashire, Double Gloucester and Red Leicester take caps, though cheddar is l/c. If it is a brand name it takes a cap, eg Boursin. Other foods also tend to be capped if they are British. These are my suggestions: Bath bun, brown windsor soup, Cornish pasty, Cumberland sausage, Chorley cake, Eccles cake, Scotch broth/egg/pancakes, Irish stew, Welsh rarebit (rarebit rather than rabbit), Yorkshire pudding; King Edward, Desiree and Maris Piper potato, Jersey Royals (this is a trademark). Foods named after places abroad are generally lower case, eg french fries, parma ham, turkish delight, waldorf salad. Wines are lower case if they take their name from a region (beaujolais, bordeaux, burgundy, champagne, moselle) or a grape variety (pinot noir, chardonnay, shiraz). Wine-making regions take a cap, eg ‘the best sparkling wines come from Champagne’ or ‘a Hunter Valley chardonnay’. An estate wine has a cap, eg Chateau Margaux. Also: bermuda shorts; french horn/kiss/leave/letter/polish/window; panama hat; plaster of paris; russian roulette; Scotch whisky, scotch mist, scots pine, Scottish for everything else; venetian blind; welsh dresser. NB: Use the term ‘welsh on a debt’ at your peril.

  • trademarks: See separate section.

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  • Abdication: cap with reference to Edward VIII; in general sense, use l/c.

  • Ambassador takes a cap if referring to a specific person, eg ‘the French Ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office’ but l/c in subsequent mentions eg ‘Mr Hague told the ambassador to leave’.

  • Bank Holiday Monday, but a bank holiday.

  • century: l/c whether you mean it as a general or specific term, eg ‘in the last century’ or ‘19th century’.

  • civil service/servant

  • councils should be lower case apart from the place name, eg Surrey county council, Southend borough council, Chipping Sodbury town council. For borough councils it is normally sufficient to say, for example, Southend council. Never call anyone ‘Councillor Peter Smith’. He is ‘a councillor, Peter Smith’, and Mr Smith in subsequent mentions. (See the local government section of Politics for more on this.)

  • court martial, plural courts martial (l/c)

  • courts: The higher ones take caps, eg the High Court, Croydon Crown Court, Court of Appeal; but lower case for Bromley magistrates’ court (note plural apostrophe), coroner’s court (singular).

  • cruise missile: a type of missile, not a name. There are numerous brand names, such as Tomahawk and Storm Shadow, which take caps, so you would say ‘a Tomahawk cruise missile’. Similarly, a stealth bomber is a type of aircraft, not a name. A current one is the B-2, so you would say ‘the B-2 stealth bomber’.

  • Diamond Jubilee (caps), subsequently ‘the jubilee’ (l/c)

  • draconian: l/c when you mean strict or severe, Draconian only when you are referring to the Ancient Greek code of laws laid down by Draco, which prescribed the death penalty for most offences.

  • E numbers: These are not brand names so from that point of view do not need a cap, but – unusually – I think they look better with caps than without. These are some examples: Tartrazine (E102), Quinoline yellow (E104), Sunset yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124) and Allura red (E129). As an example, ponceau 4r looks odd to me.

  • ecstasy for the drug, not Ecstasy: it is not a brand name, and you would not cap heroin or cannabis.

  • film, play and TV titles: Use your judgment. Don’t cap up routine words such as ‘the’ and ‘a’ unless you have a good reason. Incidentally, I think best practice is to put titles in italics (unless the whole thing is in italics, in which case use roman) rather than using inverted commas.

  • gypsies and travellers: Although recognised by the race relations industry as distinct ethnic groups, I don’t think all readers are ready for them to be granted caps.

  • high street, not High Street, when talking of the generalised shopping world, for example ‘Customers are deserting the high street for the internet.’ Obviously you cap up, for example, Beckenham High Street.

  • historic periods: Generally capped, as in Dark Ages, Reformation, Renaissance, Roaring Twenties, Cold War, Sixties.

  • internet, not Internet

  • Martini: a brand of vermouth as well as other alcoholic drinks - as a trademark it takes a cap; a martini (l/c) is the cocktail containing vermouth.

  • national curriculum

  • NHS or health service, usually not National Health Service; primary care trusts (PCTs)

  • prehistoric periods and eras: The name should be capped, such as Cretaceous period, Mesozoic era. Stone Age, Bronze Age: both words capped.

  • premium bonds

  • press, in terms of newspapers: It is often capped but I would not because I think it looks self-important.

  • riot act: Older style books insisted on caps (‘reading the Riot Act’) but these days it looks old-fashioned. I would say ‘reading the riot act’.

  • Scouts; also Beaver Scouts, Cub Scouts, and Explorer Scouts. Guides (no longer Girl Guides), Rainbows and Brownies.

  • Season: If this refers to the social season which is centred on London and runs from April to August, give it a cap, as in ‘he is enjoying the Season’. Events in the Season include the Chelsea Flower Show, the Proms, Glyndebourne, Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood, the Derby, Badminton (horse trials, not to be confused with badminton, the game played with shuttlecocks), Trooping the Colour (not Trooping of the Colour), Henley Royal Regatta, Wimbledon, Cowes Week and the Lord’s Test Match.

  • seasons: No caps on spring, summer, autumn, winter.

  • state: Use lower case for state employees, state funeral, lying in state. State of the Nation address in America.

  • taxes: We would say income tax, not Income Tax, so there is no reason to cap up any other tax. So capital gains tax, but abbreviate it to CGT, inheritance tax (IHT) national insurance (NI). VAT doesn’t need spelling out.

  • temperatures: We should now all be pretty used to Celsius, so I would use that as the main measure with the Fahrenheit equivalent in the first reference. Thus: ‘The South can expect temperatures of 28C (82F) at the weekend, but next week it will be a cooler 16C.’ If you feel your readers tend to the mature, scatter a few more Fahrenheit equivalents throughout. Use cap C and F (see Medical and Scientific Matters for more on this).

  • the: It looks a bit precious to give a cap T to names beginning with ‘the’. Use the Ritz and the Times, not The Ritz and The Times.

  • transatlantic, not Transatlantic or transAtlantic, but mid-Atlantic.

  • Tube: The colloquial name for the London Underground takes a cap.

  • type 1 or 2 diabetes: Both words are lower case. Note that the figures should be figures, not words.

  • U-turn, not u-turn.

  • Utopia, but utopian.

  • west: Western Europe (the geographical or economic grouping), the West (meaning either the global economic grouping or the Pacific coast of the USA), western (geographical adjective or cowboy film).

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Last updated September 5, 2020