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5 Capitalization

5.3 Use to indicate specific references

5.3.1 Use to create proper names

Initial capitals mark out the status of words so that the reader interprets them correctly. Ordinary proper names are usually recognizable even when they are set (through error or because of the preference of the person named) with lower-case initials. However, where a proper name consists of common nouns and qualifiers, initial capitals are needed to distinguish the specific usage from a general descriptive usage. Consider the difference in meaning, conferred by the application of initial capitals, between the following usages:

  • Tate Britain is the national gallery of British art

  • the National Gallery contains incomparable examples of British art

  • the city of London attracts millions of visitors every year

  • the City (London’s financial district)

  • the sun sets in the west

  • nationalist movements that posed a threat to the interests of the West

Some words are capitalized to distinguish their use in an abstract or specific sense. In the names of religious denominations the word church is capitalized, as in the Baptist Church, but church has a lower-case initial in general references to buildings, as in a Baptist church. (Note, however, that it would be usual to capitalize the full name of a specific building, as in Pond Street Baptist Church.)

Similarly, State is capitalized when it is used in an abstract or legal sense, as in the separation of Church and State, and in specific names of US states (New York State), but a reference to states in general will have a lower-case initial: seven Brazilian states. There is no need to capitalize the word government, whether it refers to a particular body of persons or to a general concept or body.

Historians commonly impose minimal capitalization on institutional references; this may sometimes appear unconventional and should not be permitted if it will obscure genuine differences in meaning (as, for example, between the catholic church and the Catholic Church), although readers will seldom misunderstand lower-case forms in context. The style is common in, and appropriate to, much historical work, but editors should not introduce it without consulting with the author and/or publisher.

It is as well, generally, to minimize the use of initial capitals where there is no detectable difference in meaning between capitalized and lower-case forms. Left and right are generally capitalized when they refer to political affiliations, but no reader would be likely to misinterpret the following in a book about British political life:

  • He is generally considered to be on the left in these debates

simply because it was not capitalized as
  • He is generally considered to be on the Left in these debates

Overuse of initial capitals is obtrusive, and can even confuse by suggesting false distinctions.

Capitals are sometimes used for humorous effect in fiction to convey a self-important or childish manner:

Poor Jessica. She has Absolutely No Idea.
Am irresistible Sex Goddess. Hurrah!

5.3.2 Formal and informal references

When one is referring back, after the first mention, to a capitalized compound relating to a proper name, the usual practice is to revert to lower case:

Cambridge University

their university

the Ritz Hotel

that hotel

Lake Tanganyika

the lake

National Union of Mineworkers

the union

the Royal Air Force

the air force

Capitals are sometimes used for a short-form mention of the title of a specified person, organization, or institution previously referred to in full:

the Ministry
the University statute
the College silver
the Centre’s policy
the Navy’s provisions

This style is found particularly in formal documents. Over the course of a book it is important to keep the practice within bounds and maintain strict consistency of treatment; it is easier to apply the rule that full formal titles are capitalized and subsequent informal references downcased.

Plural forms using one generic term to serve multiple names should be lower case:

Lake Erie and Lake Huron
lakes Erie and Huron
the Royal Geographical Society and Royal Historical Society
the Royal Geographical and Royal Historical societies
Oxford University and Cambridge University
Oxford and Cambridge universities

The rationale for this practice is that the plural form of the generic term is not part of the proper name but is merely a common description and thus ought not be capitalized.

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Preface Editorial team Proofreading marks Glossary of printing and publishing terms