Don’t capitalize Random Crap

Even if you feel a need to make your favorite magic words more important, don’t capitalize them in running text. It makes prose look uneven — and makes you look like an eighteenth-century pamphleteer.

Do you write to impress? I edit a lot of prose intended for that purpose — including “thought leadership” blogs, business books, and marketing copy. I’ve notice a creeping tendency to capitalize words that have no reason to be capitalized — perhaps because our president tends to do so. But Trump doesn’t create the grammatical rules. So which words should you capitalize?

The rule for proper nouns seems easy

In modern English, we capitalize proper nouns. Which are those? Specific individuals, places, things, or organizations. That also includes the names of books, movies, television shows, blogs, and other media properties.

I once met Bill Gates.

It was in the Seattle Center Auditorium.

He announced the first Microsoft browser: Internet Explorer.

(That’s all true, by the way.)

The problem is with “things” that are sort-of specific ideas, but seem proprietary.

For example, “Net Promoter Score,” a proprietary product created by Fred Reichheld of Bain and Company, is capitalized. But “customer satisfaction metric” is not.

Forrester has a product called the Customer Experience Index. It’s proprietary. But it is the field of “customer experience,” which is not.

If you write about marketing (the discipline, or the department), don’t capitalize it. It’s the same for information technology, artificial intelligence, or software as a service.

Don’t get confused by capitalized acronyms. Even though the abbreviations for the terms I just mentioned are CX, IT, AI, and SaaS, the terms themselves are not proper nouns when spelled out and do not require capitalization.

What about your “magic words?”

The temptation to capitalize a concept is strongest when you have invented it. You have created “magic words” that describe your concept, so it deserves to stand out.

Did you create The Johnson Method? The Ultimate Marketing Metric? The ROAM Analysis? The Rationalist Papers?

In your mind, these are Important, Unique, and Proprietary contributions to the world. So of course, you want to capitalize them.

Resist.

Here’s my rule of thumb: if you could conceivably trademark your term, then you can capitalize it. Customer Experience Index — yes. Customer experience — no.

In a book, there might be two or three proprietary terms worth capitalizing. Not 15. Not 61.

Here are two examples. Which reads better to you?

The only purpose of a piece of Business Writing is to change the mind of the reader. That means that before you set out, you must know the Audience whose minds you are seeking to change, and the Desired Change you want to make. You should have an Action Metric that measures if the writing is effective. And you want to leave a strong impression. The acronym I use to describe this analysis is ROAM: Readers, Objective, Action, iMpression. Before undertaking any writing project, start with a ROAM Analysis.

Alternatively:

The only purpose of a piece of business writing is to change the mind of the reader. That means that before you set out, you must know the audience whose minds you are seeking to change, and the desired change you want to make. You should have an action metric that measures if the writing is effective. And you want to leave a strong impression. The acronym I use to describe this analysis is ROAM: readers, objective, action, impression. Before undertaking any writing project, start with a ROAM analysis.

When you don’t capitalize the name of a concept, you’re sending a message: “this ought to be the terminology that everyone uses.” It’s more likely to get adopted. And that’s the best thing that can happen to your “magic words” — they become so popular that everyone uses them. Ask Malcolm Gladwell about his “tipping point” or Bob Heyman and Leland Harden about “search engine optimization.”

Unless you want your prose to read like an eighteenth century constitutional document or a presidential tweet, resist the urge to capitalize random terms. If you’re in doubt, you probably shouldn’t.

12 responses to “Don’t capitalize Random Crap

  1. Here here.

    One of my former colleagues in academia capitalized random words on his materials—syllabus, tests, quizzes, slides, and rubrics. It took a good deal of time, but I fixed these when I inherited his class. It sets a terrible example for students.

    Grammar matters, damn it.

  2. Thank you for this important reminder. I found that work colleagues from outside the U.S. did this a lot, as did generally poor writers (perhaps as some sort of overcompensation). It was easier to forgive those from other countries and wondered if was due to different grammatical rules in other languages or simply an outgrowth of English as a second language.

    1. I’m a native speaker of English who is learning German. All nouns are capitalized in German. It took some getting used to, and now English words look wrong to me when written in all small letters.

    1. If the document has a name, you can capitalize it. Compare “As we say in ‘2021 Marketing Plan’ ” vs. “As we said in the 2021 marketing plan.” The first is a document name, the second refers to a type of document.

      The rule for titles confuses lots of people (including me). If the title comes before the person’s name, capitalize:

      Amazon Studios Chief Marketing Officer Ukonwa Ojo.

      if it’s after the name, don’t:

      Ukonwa Oja, chief marketing officer

      And if you refer to the title in a generic way, don’t:

      In most companies, this is the responsibility of the chief marketing officer.

      See https://grammar.yourdictionary.com/capitalization/capitalization-of-job-titles.html

      1. Thank you, this is really helpful!

        I’m not sure I understand the logic of capitalizing the job title based on whether it’s before or after the person’s name, but the generic part certainly makes sense.

    1. You shouldn’t capitalize random crap in titles either. A title is just a sentence with no period at the end because the font, size, and spacing differ from the text that follows.

        1. I thought it was one of your posts that changed how I capitalize titles, but I couldn’t recall it with enough certainty to state that I had learned it from you.

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