Capitalisation errors involving politicians and government departments
Election time always throws-up some common grammar issues involving the use of capital letters for politicians, past politicians and the government departments.
In this article we’ll research the rules around the capitalisation of words for politicians, their titles and government departments — but below is a quick guide showing some incorrect and correct capital usage.
These Are Wrong
- the Prime Minister attended a meeting
- the President attended a rally
- former prime minister John Smith wrote an article
- the former Prime Minister will attend
- former president John Smith owns a business
- the Democrats Leader was in New York
- the Labor Leader was in a meeting
- Opposition leader Mary Smith attended
- she attended a meeting at the department of home affairs
- she spoke at the department of state meeting
These Are Correct
- the prime minister attended a meeting
- the president attended a rally
- former Prime Minister John Smith wrote an article
- the former prime minister will attend
- former President John Smith owns a business
- the Democrats leader was in New York
- the Labor leader was in a meeting
- Opposition Leader Mary Smith attended
- she attended a meeting at the Department of Home Affairs
- she spoke at the Department of State meeting
The English language has a number of grammar style guides that have been created by large news outlets. These style guides are used by journalists and writers as a reference point for grammar rules.
America’s Associated Press
One of the most-referenced grammar rule books, in American media, is the Associated Press’ publication — The AP Stylebook. In their entry about ‘Capitalization’ they offer this advice: In general, avoid unnecessary capitals. Use a capital letter only if you can justify it…use lowercase if the dictionary lists it as an acceptable form for the sense in which the word is being used…capitalize means to use uppercase for the first letter of a word…Capitalize formal titles when used immediately before a name. Lowercase formal titles when used alone or in constructions that set them off from a name by commas. Use lowercase at all times for terms that are job descriptions rather than formal titles.”
“Capitalize president only as a formal title before one or more names: President Donald Trump, former Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. Lowercase in all other uses: The president said Monday he will look into the matter. He is running for president, Lincoln was president during the Civil War.”
The AP Stylebook, under ‘Titles’, says this: “In general, confine capitalization to formal titles used directly before an individual’s name…Lowercase and spell out titles when they are not used with an individual’s name: The president issued a statement. The pope gave his blessings. Lowercase and spell out titles in constructions that set them off from a name by commas: The vice president, Mike Pence, was elected in 2016. Pope Francis, the current pope, was born in Argentina.” Capitalize formal titles when they are used immediately before one or more names: Pope Francis, President Donald Trump, Vice Presidents Yukari Nakamura and Vanessa Smith. A formal title generally is one that denotes a scope of authority, professional activity or academic activity: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Dr. Benjamin Spock, retired Gen. Colin Powell. Other titles serve primarily as occupational descriptions: astronaut Sally Ride, poet Maya Angelou, peanut farmer Jimmy Carter. A final determination on whether a title is formal or occupational depends on the practice of the government or private organization that confers it. If there is doubt about the status of a title and the practice of the organisation cannot be determined, use a construction that sets the name or the title off with commas. A formal title that an individual that an individual formerly held, is about to hold or holds temporarily is capitalized if used before the person’s name. But do not capitalize the qualifying word: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, deposed King Constantine, Attorney General-designate Griffin B. Bell, acting Mayor Peter Barry.”
British Style Guides
The BBC News Style Guide explains their use of capital lettering: “A few titles are always capped up, whether you name the person or not (eg the Queen, the Pope, Archbishop of XX). But our style generally is to minimise the use of capital letters. Political job titles have initial caps only when the title is next to the name, in whatever order. Thus: The Foreign Secretary, Harold Thomas, said…US President James Tucker…Mrs Gordon, who has been prime minister since 2015. Any post mentioned without reference to the post-holder should be in lower case — e.g. The prime minister will be out of the country for several days. The same rule applies for former holders of political office (eg The former President, James Tucker, is to make a political comeback. The former president said he wanted to spend less time with his family). Similarly, Leader of the Opposition is capped up only if accompanied by the name. Other opposition portfolios are always lower case, with or without the name (eg The shadow chancellor, Brian Banker, was furious. There was jeering when the shadow chancellor left). Also use lower case for all jobs outside politics, with or without a name (eg the director general of the BBC, Michael Graves, has praised the England cricket captain), except that police and military titles accompanied by the name are always capped up (eg Sgt Wilson is to receive an award for bravery). The UN secretary general is capped when with a name; the director of public prosecutions is always lower case. Governments are not capped up (eg The Italian government has resigned). Use initial cap Parliament with reference only to (a) Westminster in any context, and (b) the Scottish and European Parliaments where you are giving the full title. Otherwise, lower case (eg Mrs Gordon will face questions in Parliament; There is to be an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament; They say they will halt proceedings of parliament in Strasbourg). Similarly, assembly is capped only with the full title (eg: The National Assembly for Wales is to move to a new home; The problems facing farmers will be discussed by the Welsh assembly). In general, government schemes and initiatives are capped — Northern Powerhouse, Big Society, National Minimum Wage — while benefits are lower case, such as universal credit and personal independence payment. For place names: use upper case for recognised regions, and for vaguer political/geographical areas (eg the Middle East, Western Europe). Otherwise, lower case (south-west France, east Lancashire). Also lower case for south Wales, north Wales, mid-Wales etc.’
British English and American English
The one thing that you’ll notice about the use of capital lettering is that users of British English and American English mostly agree on how to use capitals for important positions and government departments — except, I did discover that ‘the Pope spoke’ and ‘the Queen visited’ is capitalised in British English, but not American.
In the UK, the Guardian and Observer Style Guide reflects on the history of capitalisation: “Times have changed since the days of medieval manuscripts with elaborate hand-illuminated capital letters, or Victorian documents in which not just proper names, but virtually all nouns, were given initial caps (a Tradition valiantly maintained to this day by Estate Agents). A look through newspaper archives would show greater use of capitals the further back you went. The tendency towards lowercase, which in part reflects a less formal, less deferential society, has been accelerated by the explosion of the internet: some web companies, and many email users, have dispensed with capitals altogether. Our style reflects these developments. We aim for coherence and consistency, but not at the expense of clarity. As with any aspect of style, it is impossible to be wholly consistent — there are almost always exceptions, so if you are unsure check for an individual entry in this guide. But here are the main principles: jobs all lc, eg prime minister, US secretary of state, chief rabbi, editor of the Guardian. Titles cap up titles, but not job description, eg President Barack Obama (but the US president, Barack Obama, and Obama on subsequent mention); the Duke of Westminster (the duke at second mention); Pope Francis but the pope. Government departments in English-speaking countries — Initial capitals when full name is used, eg Home Office, Foreign Office, Ministry of Justice (UK), Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security (US), Department of Immigration and Border Protection (Australia), Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Irish Republic), Ministry of Railways (India). Lowercase when abbreviated or paraphrased, eg justice ministry, defense department, Australia’s immigration department, Canadian fisheries ministry, Indian railway ministry, etc. Lowercase for translations of government departments in non-English-speaking countries, eg French foreign ministry, Russian ministry of emergency situations, etc.
Australian Style Guide
The Australian Government broadcaster’s reference is the ABC Style Guide: “Cap incumbent elected positions and cabinet ministers in Australia and overseas: the Prime Minister, the Health Minister. Don’t cap former titles, or plurals: Kristina Keneally was then planning minister, the health ministers say they are working on a solution. Don’t cap references to a minister, the minister if you’re not using the full title. Opposition titles, here and abroad, take capitals: Opposition Leader, Deputy Opposition Leader, Shadow Treasurer. Lower case outside of titles: the opposition has campaigned against privatisation. Cap Attorney-General since it is effectively a ministerial title. Do not cap: secretary-general, auditor-general, solicitor-general. For local government, upper case elected incumbents: Mayor, Lord Mayor, President. Lower case in plural or generic reference. Lower case councillor. Do not use these terms as courtesy titles. By itself, leader doesn’t take a cap: Greens leader di Natale, Labor leader Bill Shorten. Do not cap personal (non-elected) titles: manager, director, chief executive, chairman, secretary etc. Capitalise foreign heads of state and ministers. Always cap: the Pope, the Queen. The full names of organisations take upper case on first reference and lower case in subsequent reference: the University of New South Wales, but later the university. Department of Immigration and Border Protection, but later the department. Lower case for administrations past, present, and generic: the federal government, former Queensland government minister, government policy. Cap government departments on first reference: Treasury officials, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In subsequent reference: the department. Use upper case for proper names, but not in generic or plural references: the State of Victoria; state government policies, state land, an independent state.”
Hopefully you found this article and the references helpful. I’d be interested in hearing about your use of capitals — you can find me on social media @BrendenWood.
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