Capitalization in Context: When Word Won’t Help

Arctic circle

Though capitalization can depend on context, there are some general rules that will apply most of the time. Proper nouns and adjectives—including the names of people, places, and brands—are almost always capitalized. So is the first word in a sentence.

But there are exceptions. For example, if you were to visit the Arctic region (capital A, lowercase r) or, more specifically, the Arctic Circle (capital A and C), you might give someone an arctic—or icy—stare (lowercase a). And brussels sprouts gets a lowercase b whether or not the sprouts are from Brussels, Belgium—except when brussels is the first word in a sentence.

Abbreviations present a different challenge. Style guides tend to disagree on terms like UNICEF and COVID; some of them prefer Unicef and Covid (or sometimes covid), so editors are likely to see both. And though there’s no disagreement about IMDb and MHz and kW, you’ll need to remember which letters are capitalized and which are lowercase—or look them up. And don’t expect Word’s spelling and grammar checker to save you. Though it will flag obvious errors, it’s agnostic about most abbreviations, and it doesn’t check for consistency.

This is where a proofreading program like PerfectIt can help.

PerfectIt’s Consistency Checks

As some of our readers already know, PerfectIt is an add-in for Microsoft Word that scans documents for inconsistencies. For example, if PerfectIt finds “University” with a capital U and “university” with a lowercase u in the same document, it will flag each one and present them in two separate lists. The first list will show where each capitalized instance occurs, giving you the option to change any of them to lowercase:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. Choose preferred capitalization: university [found 3 times] University [found 3 times] …our affiliated University laboratory: Argonne… (Fix) …at the University Drive location will remain… (Fix) The University decided that Argonne National… (Fix)

The second will show each lowercase instance and give you the option to apply an initial capital:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. Choose preferred capitalization: university [found 3 times] University [found 3 times] …urban research university that has driven new… (Fix) …at the university, students test their ideas… (Fix) The university is enriched by the city we call… (Fix)

PerfectIt ignores terms like “University of Chicago,” where University is followed by of and a proper noun—and therefore very likely to be correct. But it won’t know which of the remaining instances are correctly capitalized, so you’ll need to use your editorial judgment to decide which, if any, need to be fixed. The answer in each case will depend not only on context but also on your style guide.

Enter The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt, which supplements PerfectIt’s core consistency checks with guidance adapted from the Manual.

Words Like “University” in Chicago Style

According to CMOS 8.68, Chicago prefers lowercase for the word university and other common nouns when they are used apart from an official name, even when they refer to that name. So “the University of Chicago” becomes “the university decided,” where university stands in for the full name, and “university laboratory,” where university is used as an adjective.

For university, Chicago Style for PerfectIt relies on the built-in consistency check that we reviewed in the previous section. A blanket preference for lowercase university would risk stopping editors at every legitimate use of uppercase University—for example, in the names of campus organizations and street addresses, where capitalization could be correct.

But Chicago Style for PerfectIt can help you make the right decision:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. Capitalization of Phrases. A word or phrase is capitalized inconsistently. See more from CMOS 8.1 > Choose preferred capitalization: university [found 3 times] University [found 3 times] …our affiliated University laboratory: Argonne… (Fix) …at the University Drive location will remain… (Fix) The University decided that Argonne National… (Fix)

Clicking on “See more from CMOS 8.1” will display advice from the Manual:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. The Chicago Manual of Style. 8.1. Capitalization depends on several factors. Proper nouns are usually capitalized, as are some of the terms derived from or associated with proper nouns. For the latter, Chicago’s preference is for sparing use of capitals. For example, although Brussels (the Belgian city) is capitalized, Chicago prefers brussels sprouts—which are not necessarily from Brussels (see 8.61). Likewise, President Taft and Fifty-Fifth Street and University of Chicago are capitalized, but the president and the street and the university are not (see 8.19–33, 8.56–59, and 8.68–69). In certain promotional…

If you want more detail, clicking on any of the red numbered links will take you directly to the corresponding numbered paragraphs in CMOS Online.

Context Matters

Chicago Style for PerfectIt defaults to consistency not only for the word university but also for most other common nouns whose capitalization is strongly dependent on context. But in other cases, it will suggest a Chicago-style preference.

For example, if your document includes the phrase “Arctic air”—or “Arctic” followed by chill, smile, stare, or waters—the likely probability is that it’s a nonliteral use of the word Arctic. So PerfectIt will suggest using lowercase “arctic”:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. Capitalization of Phrases. Unless referring literally to the Arctic region, lowercase “arctic.” See more from CMOS 8.61 > Preferred style: arctic waters. Arctic waters [found 1 time] encountered the Arctic waters of Lake Superior… (Fix)

PerfectIt could of course be wrong if the use is literal; the waters of the Arctic region, for example, would be referred to as “Arctic waters” (with a capital A)—as PerfectIt reminds you when it stops on that term. But the risk of so-called false positives is balanced by the opportunity to learn a key principle: the idea, in this case, that a proper noun used nonliterally or as a metaphor is usually lowercase in Chicago style.

For terms that are more likely to be capitalized, context may still matter. For example, Rust Belt and Wild West and Silicon Valley and Twin Cities are capitalized to refer to a region of industrial decline, the American frontier era, the high-tech sector in Northern California, and Minneapolis and Saint Paul, respectively. But any of them might be used in another, generic sense—or to refer to another region.

For example, it’s possible that you are editing a document that refers to “twin cities” as a concept. PerfectIt will therefore try to frame its advice conditionally—“If referring to Minneapolis and Saint Paul . . .”—while bringing up an excerpt from CMOS that defines the rule.

Clear Preferences and Exceptions

When capitalization doesn’t depend on context, Chicago Style for PerfectIt can offer more definitive suggestions. For example, when it finds an incorrectly capitalized version of a term like COVID-19 or MHz, it will suggest the correct form and direct you to the applicable rule in CMOS.

For an abbreviation like COVID, UNICEF, or IMDb, you’ll get an excerpt from CMOS 10.6, which outlines Chicago’s general principles for capitalizing acronyms and initialisms. For technical or scientific abbreviations like MHz and kW, you’ll be referred to CMOS 10.49, where you’ll learn that the prefix letter for mega- (but not for kilo-) is capitalized, as are abbreviations for units derived from proper names (like Hz, from Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, and W, from James Watt; the unit names hertz and watt are lowercase). Nothing in editing is absolute, however, and PerfectIt isn’t perfect. If by “KW” you mean “Kuwait” rather than “kilowatt,” it’s easy to ignore PerfectIt’s suggestion for “kW” and click “Next.”

For terms like COVID and UNICEF and most other acronyms (abbreviations pronounced as words), Chicago prefers all caps. But if your preference—or that of your house style—is for an initial capital (Covid and Unicef), you can use PerfectIt to create a new style based on Chicago but modified to reflect your preferences—and to add terms not included in PerfectIt.

Learn More

As it does for hyphenation, Chicago Style for PerfectIt will zero in on inconsistent capitalization while also checking for specific terms. And though it relies on context—and on your editorial judgment—it will help you apply Chicago style by giving you a direct link to the advice in the Manual.

To learn more about The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt or to apply it on your next document, click for details.

Photo: Monument to the Arctic Circle (Salekhard, Russia), by Vasyatka1, CC BY-SA 4.0 (adapted for post).

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