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Capitalization, as editors know, is important. It can also get tricky very quickly when the same word appears as a noun, a modifier, or part of a name. And capitalization rules can vary between style manuals.
Capitalization can convey information about whether a noun is common or proper: In the age of the iPhone, being on Safari is not the same thing as being on safari. And is Jess at the subway, waiting for a train, or at the Subway, waiting for a sandwich?
It can differentiate between an official title and a job description:
Vincent Gillespie is the J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at Oxford.
My teacher is the medievalist and English professor Vincent Gillespie.
As a sign of respect, many religious traditions capitalize even pronouns that refer to God or the Bible: We celebrate His birth. That form of respect is also given to groups of people, which is why leaders of the Black Power movement and many other marginalized groups have used capitalization as part of broader demands for dignified treatment.
Improper capitalization, on the other hand, can look silly: we’ve all come across business websites that refer to Brad, who is a Programmer and Designer in addition to being President of his own Company. This mistake is extremely common in text translated from German, which capitalizes all of its nouns, but it’s also extremely common among people who want to seem Very Important.
So how do we sort it all out?
Proper and Common Nouns
First of all, look at your noun. Are you using it as a title or as a description? If it’s separated from the noun in the sentence, there’s a good chance it’s a common noun and thus lowercased:
If elected mayor, I promise to drive the snakes out of Springfield.
Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. is an associate professor of archaeology at Marshall College.
This is also true for US presidents, with some exceptions we’ll look at later.
If the title is attached to the name—whether it’s a full name or only a surname—it can be capitalized:
Please welcome Mayor Joe Quimby.
I voted for President Bartlett.
If you’re using the title in place of a name as a direct address, it’s also capitalized. This goes for honorifics, too:
Excuse me, Madam President, can I ask a question?
Look, Your Worshipfulness, let’s get one thing straight.
Here’s where it gets tricky: what happens when additional modifiers are added to the name along with the title? To understand this, we need to understand appositive phrases.
Appositive phrases, as Garner’s Modern English Usage notes, refer to “the same person or thing by a different name, usually in the form of an explanatory phrase that narrows an earlier, more general phrase.” An appositive may be restrictive or nonrestrictive, depending on whether the subject is the only one of its kind: my best friend, Diana, is restrictive because there can be only one best, but my friend Diana is nonrestrictive, since Diana might be one of many friends. (While commas generally frame nonrestrictive appositives, this is a matter of style, as Garner notes, “not a hard-and-fast rule.”)
When titles are used in apposition—that is, as an appositive phrase—a bit of grammatical alchemy transforms the title into part of a descriptive phrase. The modifier can be an adjective, an adjective phrase, or simply an article, like the. So the full proper noun with the title not in the appositive position might be:
Prime Minister Harriet Jones
Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons
Add a modifier, though, and—presto!—the title turns into a common noun in a descriptive phrase:
British prime minister Harriet Jones
the wise Wakandan king T’Challa
everyone’s favorite dragon-riding queen, Daenerys Targaryen
To understand how this works, think of how we use unofficial descriptive phrases to precede a name:
Tonight’s guests are veteran journalist and feminist crusader Murphy Brown and her producer, Miles Silverberg.
These phrases are flexible: mix them, match them, tack a whole list of descriptors on before the name, if you like. You can’t do that with a title: Prime Minister Jones can only be Prime Minister Jones. Adding an article or a descriptive phrase, however, “deactivates” the title, so it’s now lowercased.
Turning a title into an adjective or another word form creates a common noun that’s related to the title but is not capitalized:
an assistant professor of archaeology
A word about US presidents: If you’re using The Chicago Manual of Style, all of the above rules hold true:
When he assumed the presidency, President Bartlett became president of the United States and was vested with presidential powers.
However, the US federal government has its own style manual, the GPO Style Manual, which is far more capitalization heavy: Federal Government and Congressional are capped in GPO style. So is President—even in apposition and even as a descriptor far away from the noun—any time it refers to the head of the United States or any other state (presidents of corporations and other organizations, however, are lowercased):
Former President Roslin missed having the powers of the Presidency.
The AP Stylebook, on the other hand, capitalizes President in apposition but lowercases it for other uses:
I asked former President Laura Roslin what she liked best about being president.
Given these variations, it’s important to pay attention to the context in which you’re editing and read the appropriate style manual. Most countries have specific guidelines for how to treat titles and honorifics, some of which are downright byzantine (I’m looking at you, United Kingdom).
Understanding how appositives and titles work together, though, gives us the basic principles we need to make the right call while editing. To learn more, check out sections 8.19 to 8.33 of CMOS or the “appositives” entry in Garner’s.