A Common Issue
A common mistake we come across when editing business plans, reports and other business documents is job title capitalization. Keeping the rules straight can be tricky: Check out Grammar Girl’s solution below.
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Capitalizing Job Titles
Capitalizing job titles can be tricky because they aren’t always capitalized, but it seems like a lot of people want to see their title capitalized whether it should be or not.
I’m talking about job titles such as vice president, sales director, chairperson, mayor, and emperor.
In general, titles that come before names are capitalized, and titles that come after names are lowercase.
The thing you have to figure out is whether the word is part of an official title (in which case it is capitalized) or just describing someone's role (in which case it is lowercase).
For example, let’s imagine that Aardvark is class president. He’s very responsible. If you write,
We invited President Aardvark to dinner.
you capitalize president because it’s his official title and it’s right before his name.
But if you write,
Aardvark, the class president, came to dinner.
president is lowercase because it’s after his name and it’s just descriptive. You’re describing his role instead of using president as his official title.
If there is no name, the title is usually lowercase. For example, if you write,
The president came to dinner.
president is lowercase.
Sometimes a title may come directly before the name but still be lowercase because it’s simply describing someone’s role. For example, if you write,
Our class president, Aardvark Blueback, came over for dinner.
president is lowercase.
(That could be a trivia question someday. What is Aardvark’s last name?)
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Capitalizing Job Titles in Programs or Tables
There are some common exceptions though. For example, a reader named Leah wrote, “I just realized that I've been unconsciously capitalizing [job titles] when putting them in table format … Have I been doing this wrong?”
No, Leah hasn't been doing it wrong. Job titles are often capitalized when you have a list of people with their titles, such as when names are listed in event programs, in a lists of donors, or in tables.
The “Boss Exception”
Finally, we have what I call the “boss exception.” The Chicago Manual of Style notes that “Exceptions may also be called for in other contexts for reasons of courtesy or diplomacy.”
The way I say it is if your bosses wants their titles capitalized and don’t like to be corrected, it’s usually best to capitalize the darn titles. It’s a relatively common problem, and it seems wise to avoid annoying your boss over a small matter. Pick your battles, people.
That’s your quick and dirty tip: capitalize job titles when they come before a name and are an official title, and lowercase job titles when they come after a name or are merely descriptive. But you can also capitalize titles when you have a list of names or if it will make someone angry or offended if you don’t capitalize the title.
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