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The guidelines for capitalization have changed little in the last 75 years, but you would not know it when you read most business communication.

Companies routinely capitalize such terms as Customer, Team, Marketing Manager, and Program, largely because people follow an arbitrary standard or no standard. Besides not conforming to accepted standards of English, they often are inconsistent. They capitalize a word in one sentence and lower case the same word in the next sentence. With no stylebook, dictionary, or language principle to guide them, they are doomed to excessive and unwarranted capitalization.

Proper nouns, the formal names of things, are capitalized. Common nouns, which name broad categories, are not capitalized. And just because something is widely known within the company by a particular name does not make it a proper noun. For example, the senior leadership team is simply a reference to a group of senior executives who are in leadership positions. It does not warrant capitalization. Resist the impulse to upper case a word simply because everyone else does it or because you have a vague sense that the word or name deserves special status. Capitalize something if it meets the following criteria (there will be a few exceptions, but this is a good way to gauge):

  • It is the formal, proper name of something (Chevron Corporation, but the corporation when it stands alone).
  • It has copyright or trademark protection (he reached for a Kleenex).
  • It is a popular name that is well established, usually after decades of use, such as the Bay Area (San Francisco) or the Street (Wall Street).
  • It is a recognized name designating a particular thing (the Oval Office).
  • It is a title that appears immediately before a name (Vice President Judy Jones), but not when it appears after the name (Judy Jones, vice president) or when the title appears alone.

When in doubt, check a resource book. The Associated Press Stylebook is the most commonly used resource book in business and journalism for such questions as usage and capitalization.

11 Responses to “Avoid a Capital Offense: Don’t Uppercase Common Nouns”

  1. John Doe

    I had a quick question. When do you capitalize the word team? For example:

    The Florida Baseball team won the 2016 world series.

    The Florida Marlins Baseball Team won the 2016 world series.

    Kindly correct all errors found in these two examples.

  2. Ken O'Quinn

    Tim,
    You would only capitalize “team” unless it is part of a proper name, and I can’t think of a time when that would be the case. We don’t capitalize the common-noun element of a name, so “The Florida Marlins” represent the proper-noun element, and “baseball team” is reduced to lowercase. The World Series is considered a proper noun, based on decades as a distinguished sporting event, so it’s capitalized.

    In a related situation, if you write, “the 15th annual Gator Bowl game,” the word “annual” is lowercase, unless it is part of the formal name of the event, and that is usually not the case.

    Thank you for writing. Feel free to send a note if you have similar questions

  3. CC

    There are some difference of opinions among some colleagues on the capitalization use for “the team”, “The Team” or “the Team” . Could you please clarify? Should it be capitalized or not in the following examples?

    1) The team has the knowledge, expertise and resources necessary to provide the services that may be required.

    (2) The team’s assets can be drawn upon by the Supervising Partner, Project Manager and Task Leader to accomplish the work in a timely manner while responding to the unique individual project needs.

    (3) Many of the team’s senior survey staff are licensed by the NYS Department of Education as Professional Land Surveyors.

  4. John Doe

    Thank you for your timely response. I recently became a website administrator for a local sports talk website. The site was already built when I took over. Now my boss is cussing me about simple mistakes he finds on the site like this one. So, for example, if someone writes “The New York Knicks Basketball Team lost last night’s game”. The T in team should be lowercase?

  5. Ken O'Quinn

    Yes, “team” is lowercase and so is “basketball,” because both are common nouns. If you write to someone, “I’m going to play basketball on Saturday,” you wouldn’t capitalize it. People sometimes get confused when, for example, “basketball” appears beside New York Knicks. They think all the words are part of the proper name, and they are not. In fact, even “Knicks” is not the legal name. The franchise is incorporated as The New York Knickerbockers, but “the Knicks” is the commonly accepted short form, so it’s proper to capitalize it.

  6. Ken O'Quinn

    Thanks for writing. No, team should not be capitalized in any of the examples you sent. Capitalization is a significant writing issue in the business world, but the guidelines have not changed since we were in school. Proper nouns (the formal, legal, copyrighted, or patented name) is capitalized, and other things are not. If a manufacturer had a patent on a type of sports jersey called Team, then it would be uppercase.

    People sometimes think a term is capitalized because it is what everyone is familiar with. For example, people write Senior Leadership Team, and if you ask them why, they will say that is the name of the group. But it is not a formal label. It is simply the common descriptive term people apply to that group. There are a few exceptions. The Bay Area of San Francisco is capitalized, because after decades of use, it is accepted as the official name of that geographic area.

    Titles, such as project manager or task leader are not capitalized unless they are formal titles (such as vice president) and they appear immediately before a person’s name. Without the name, they are lowercase. In your third example, professional land surveys is a job description, not a formal title. The NYS Department of Education is correct.

  7. P. Tudor

    When addressing my office team in an email communication, should I capitalize the collective noun team?
    “Good morning, Team” or “Good morning, team…”

  8. Ken O'Quinn

    It should be “Good morning, team.” It is no different than saying “Good morning, folks” or “Good morning, everyone.”

  9. S. Jenkins

    Hi, I wondered if you might help me clarify if the name of a department, rather, the descriptive name of an entire staff would need to be capitalized in a resume?
    For example, in the following sentence, would I need to capitalize the word “underwriting”:
    Selected by management to contribute to an underwriting manual, used as an educational tool, for underwriting staff.

  10. Ken O'Quinn

    You shouldn’t capitalize “underwriting” in that context, because it is a generic reference to an activity. If it were part of a book title, as in “Underwriting Challenges in the 21st Century,” then it would be. You also would capitalize it if it were part of a formal title before a name, such as “Vice President of Underwriting Pam Tyler.” But if you write to someone that you hope to write a book about underwriting someday, it would not be capitalized, because it is not the formal, legal name of anything. Similarly, if you wrote, “I hope to write a book about baseball,” there would be no reason to capitalize the sport.

  11. Ken O'Quinn

    I tend not to capitalize department names unless they are part of the formal name. So I would capitalize General Motors Marketing Department, but I would lower case “marketing department,” even if I were working in the company. However, I recognize that some people feel compelled to uppercase it, because others in the company do. I would take a stronger stand on certain language issues, but this is not one.

    The reason I don’t uppercase department names is because almost every company in the world has a marketing department and a human resources department. When things become that common, they are generic, and they lose their special status as special nouns. We capitalized the seasons at one time (winter, summer), but no longer. We capitalize the U.S. Postal Service because that’s the formal name, but we lowercase “post office.”

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