A capital debate


To capitalise or not? It’s an often frustrating argument on which we’re constantly asked to adjudicate. Accountants, engineers and – especially – lawyers like capitals. Readers don’t. In fact studies have shown that when the eye has to navigate up and down a line of text that contains too many capitals, it mars readability.

At best, too many capitalised nouns can give writing a ‘legal tome’ feel; at worst, they can make an otherwise worthy piece of text seem like an excerpt from a railway timetable.

Recently a client called us. “Help,” she said. “Remind me what I need to say to win the argument against having too many.”

So here goes . . .

Modern day usage favours minimilisation of capitals for a number of reasons, mostly to do with readability, consistency and clarity.

When organisations’ names are reduced to a generic element (group, company, bank, department, commission, division), the capitals are dispensed with. They’re only retained if the shortened version still carries the specific element. For example, the Attorney-General’s Department becomes Attorney-General’s but if you only use the department it becomes lower case.

If you find yourself fighting for the lower-case camp, it may be useful to remind your opponents of the history of the capital letter. They first came into use in English to mark the start of a chapter (those beautiful illuminated documents that monks spent years upon). Then they were used to start a sentence. Then, in the sixteenth century, someone suggested we use capitals to distinguish “important” nouns like names. The trend became so popular that over the next 100 years some writers began to capitalise every noun. But by the nineteenth century the capitalising mania had been dampened down, restricted to the start of sentences and proper nouns that name a unique person, place, publication, title, date or institution.

Here’s what the federal government style book says about capitals:

“Traditionally, a capital letter has often been attached to a proper name to signify respect for a particular position or organisation or to draw a distinction between two entities with the same generically abbreviated title. [eg Company, Bank etc] . . .  With the move to fewer capitals, this practice is rapidly declining. Apart from the apparent inconsistencies that such distinctions can create throughout a document, the practice also gives the impression of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude that is inappropriate in material produced for an external audience. Further the practice does little to aid clarity: if the context does not make the meaning clear, a capital alone will rarely do so.

The style book then gives examples of how to handle names of organisations:

In the full official names of organisations, all words other than articles, prepositions and conjunctions are given initial capitals: the Department of Finance and Administration.
When names of this kind are abbreviated to just the generic element for subsequent references,leave them uncapitalised:

the Department of Finance and Administration . . . the department

the Academy of the Humanities . . . the academy

the Royal Commission on the Constitution . . . the royal commission

the Regional Australia Summit . . . the summit

So there you have it. From the horse’s mouth, as it were. And hopefully enough powder to fight the good fight.




Derryn Heilbuth has worked as a newspaper, magazine and television journalist. Before founding Businesswriters & Design, Derryn was Publications Editor at Westpac Banking Corporation. She has an Honours degree in English, a Masters degree in journalism, has written a book on small business, taught at university and TAFE and now conducts seminars on better business writing and strategic writing. In addition to her broad corporate communications and publishing experience, Derryn has developed a particular expertise in sustainability communications.

Posted in Sustainability communications

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