Capitalization in the real world

One of things that most startled me when I left the newsroom for life as a public servant was discovering just how devoted non-journalists are to capital letters.

At the university where I work, it is accepted style to capitalize University when it stands alone and refers to our institution. It’s fine if you want to lowercase university when you’re talking about U.Va. or Virginia Tech or Christopher Newport. But our university is the University. I find this usage disconcerting, but it’s how my employer does it, and I enjoy being employed. (Did I say “disconcerting”? I meant “just peachy.”)

But I admit to harboring a subversive hope that our University may yet change this aspect of its capitalization style. It’s been done before, even in the hard-boiled halls of higher education, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage. Bryan A. Garner, the authority on today’s standard American English, writes:

Inexperienced writers—and overzealous house stylists—often tend to capitalize common nouns inappropriately.  … A house style may insist that certain common nouns (e.g., Company, University, City) be capitalized when referring to its own institution. But even this holdout against the modern trend is weakening—the University of Colorado at Boulder recently declared that its internal style is to always make university lowercase when it stands alone.”

Granted, that’s Colorado, legalizer of a certain drug conservative Virginians scowl upon. But it’s also an academic institution, with all pomp and circumstance appurtenant, and it nevertheless changed its style to remove a layer of self-importance.

While I’m coping pretty well with University, I’m having more trouble with some of the other capitalized nouns I run across. Is the president the President? Is a professor of business a Professor of Business?

The style manuals on my desk—The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, and Garner’s Modern American Usage—favor capitalizing a title only when it directly precedes a name. Other uses are lowercase.

So we have Pope Francis when the title and name are used together in that order. But without a name, the pope is the pope, lowercase. And when the name appears but not directly after the title, only the proper noun is uppercase: The new pope will be known as Francis.

You’d write Queen Elizabeth II—capitalized title followed immediately by the proper noun. But on later references she’s the queen, lowercase.

Now, if lowercase letters are good enough for a pope and a queen, shouldn’t they do for a professor of business or even a university president?

I guess I’ll find out.



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