When to Capitalize Common Words

Many of us are unsure when to capitalize certain words like mother, college, or president. When do you capitalize the word university? What about prime minister? What do these terms have in common and what one grammar rule can we remember to apply to these kinds of words or phrases?

Traits that the aforementioned words all share are that they can be used in two circumstances: as a proper name or as a regular noun. Here’s an example. You want to capitalize the term prime minister when it refers to a specific person and is used as a proper noun, e.g., Prime Minister Stephen Harper or former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. However, when referring to the office in general, spell that out in lowercase. For example, “I don’t know why anyone would want to be prime minister!” Ditto for president. “The popularity of President Obama has fallen during his second term,” but “The U. S. president flies on Air Force One.”

The same is true of mother and father. If you’re writing a novel and the main character is talking about his father, spell the word in lowercase. But if your character is engaged in a dialogue where he refers to his father by the name dad, capitalize that (i.e., “I’m off to see my father.” But… “Are you sure that you don’t need the Toyota tonight, Dad? I’d love to borrow it.”). The word parents is almost never capitalized unless it begins a sentence.

Capitalize the words college and university when they are proper nouns – Ramapo College of New Jersey or Rutgers University – but lowercase them both when you are talking about how much fun you had at college and how much beer you drink in university.

It’s easy to remember what to do with these terms if you think that proper nouns and names are capitalized but general titles are not. This tip will help you to properly edit your manuscript before it goes to the publisher. For professional editing advice, check out the proofreading and copyediting service Book Magic.