We should be more sparing in our use of capitals

November 29th, 2023

Hamas and Israel Open to Extension of Truce

Hamas releases third group of hostages as US expresses hope of truce extension

Two headlines, selling two reports of essentially the same story – the first from The New York Times, the second from The Guardian, both on Monday 27th November 2023. I quote them here, not to question how each of these excellent newspapers might be spinning the negotiations between the two sides in the war, but to draw attention to capital letters.

To my mind, capital letters are required only: at the beginning of a sentence; and to signify proper names. By “proper names” I mean the names of people, places and organisations — the names which are proper to them, and which set them apart from other people, places and organisations.

On that basis, the only words in the headline above from The New York Times which need to be capitalised would be “Hamas” and “Israel”. But American newspapers do capitalise most words in their headlines – as did British newspapers a century ago. The headline from The Guardian exemplifies the style followed by British papers today – apart from the tabloids, which might splash the news all in capitals, thus: HAMAS-ISRAEL TRUCE HOPES. American styles are evolving too, apparently: cursory investigation indicates The Washington Post now limits capitalisation in headlines to proper names.

I’m prompted to comment on this by an email from my friend Martyn Fowler, chief executive of Elite Renewables Ltd, asking me to run a proof-reader’s eye over some text prepared for the company’s website:

Mission statement

The Definitive Zero Carbon Company, With A Market Leading Team, Showing The World What Is Possible. 

Nothing wrong with that, we might say. I don’t think this mission statement requires any capital letters apart from on the first word “The”. (Some would argue that “the World” qualifies for a capital “W”, to avoid confusing the Earth with any other worlds.) Martyn might consider starting the mission statement with the words: “Elite Renewables Ltd is the definitive zero carbon company…” highlighting the company name. As in so many aspects of marketing and promotion, less is more…

Let’s make life easier for our readers, and trouble them with capital letters only when there’s a reason for it. When most people’s job titles can get by without capitals, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak or King Charles can stand out from the crowd.

Categories: Proofreading, Words for Business

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