When to Capitalize Names That are Not Names

EditingI’m in the midst of editing a short story for another writer. One of the items I’m highlighting for correction is names that are not really names. About seven years ago, I was in the same situation except I was the one creating the error.

Back then I had Goggle and a few great writing friends to guide me, so it was fairly painless. Here are the general guidelines I follow (which in some style guides/writing circles may be different).

  1. Of course, all proper names are capitalized:

Betty and Jim flew to Mars for their anniversary.

It was seven days before Jack realised he had a balloon stuck to his front door.

Together Gilbert, John, Grace and Billy hiked the mountain.

  1. Parents and grandparents names are capitalized if used in place of a name (Hint: it isn’t preceded by her or my):

In the morning, Mom let the chickens out to eat the bugs.

Sally wanted to give Dad a trip to Scotland for his birthday.

I went to the store with Grandpa to buy cranberries.

These names are NOT capitalized if NOT used in place of a name:

In the morning, my mom let the chickens out to eat the bugs.

Sally wanted to give her dad a trip to Scotland for his birthday.

I went to the store with my grandpa to buy cranberries.

  1. Other relative titles are capitalized if used with a name:

I gave Aunt Wilma two dollars for an apple.

Michael went with Uncle John to Mexico.

We went biking in the woods with Cousin Ruby.

These titles are NOT capitalized if NOT used as part of a name (preceded by my, his, the, ect.):

I gave my aunt Wilma two dollars for an apple.

Michael went with his uncle John to Mexico.

We went biking in the woods with my cousin Ruby.

  1. Sir is capitalized when it precedes a proper name:

Tonight, Sir Winston Churchill will give a speech.

In 1854, Sir Robert Bordon was born in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia.

Sir is NOT capitalized when it is used alone, without a proper name:

“Yes, sir. I’ll order the pies today,” said Laird.

I called him sir though he was far from a gentleman.

With one exception: To begin a letter you’d write: Dear Sir,

About five years ago, I had a discussion with another writer with regard to the capitalization of sir without the accompaniment of a proper name. She was adamant the word was capitalized (“Yes, Sir). I began to second-guess myself and did more research only to confirm the rule I followed was correct.

Nowadays with many styles and inventions and rule benders flooding the Internet, it’s impossible sometimes for even the simplest rules to survive unchanged. Don’t be surprised if in twenty years from now, the rule has evolved to use a capital.

  1. Titles for military personnel are capitalized when followed by a proper name or used as a name:

The ship was piloted by Captain James T. Kirk.

In three days, Private Mulberry will take leave.

“If I must go, Captain, then I will go bravely,” he said.

The titles are not capitalized if not preceded by a proper name or used as a name (Hint: It is preceded by words like the and my):

The captain brought the ship into port through rough seas.

I had to ask my sergeant for time away from base.

The ship was sunk while under the command of former captain Henry Anderson.

  1. Nicknames when used as character names are capitalized:

Melanie, Squirt and I ran all the way to the ball field.

Rambo, Jimbo and Tattle-tales marched down the hallway looking for trouble.

The truck rumbled by Pete, Griper and Shorty early in the morning.

  1. Terms of endearment are NOT capitalized. These are not to be mistaken for nicknames:

Hey, honey, pass the honey.

This chair goes over there, sweetie.

Would you like a chocolate bar, little one?

This includes when you’re talking with your pals or un-pals:

“Hey, buddy, pass the chicken.”

“I’m distracting you, little turd blossom.”

“Hey, dude, check out that chick.”

“Hand over that phone, jerk!”

To distinguish a nickname from a term of endearment, consider these questions:

  1. Does the ‘name’ change in every sentence, paragraph, scene or chapter? If so, this is a term of endearment and is NOT capitalized.
  2. Would the character be referred to by this name to others consistently [I will tell honey what you said.]? If the answer is yes, then it would be capitalized (I will tell Honey what you said.]. If the answer is no, then you would NOT capitalize it.
  3. Is the character referred to by this name throughout the book by another character? In other words, even though Johnny’s mother calls him Johnny, do his friends call him Shorty? If so, this is a nickname and is capitalized when used for him [We followed Shorty down the trail to the stash of moonshine.].

I hope this helps sort out the capitalized and un-capitalized names.

Inspiration

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5 thoughts on “When to Capitalize Names That are Not Names

  1. Very concise rundown here Diane with a good demonstration with your examples. I think many a writer tend to run into these questioning moments at some time or another. Thanks! 🙂

  2. Great article, Diane. I am currently writing a story where the governor is referred to as Governor. I have to stop every time I use it to question whether it needs a capital or not.
    Some of your aunt and uncle rules, I misuse frequently. I’m sure did the proper research and when I check it out, I will find that you are right.

    • These can be tricky, and I sometimes have to recheck a rule if I haven’t used it for a while.

      With regard to uncle and aunt, think of it this way: We wouldn’t write, “When my Friend Sally went to the store, she bought apples,” so we shouldn’t write, “When my Aunt Sally went to the store, she bought apples.”

      In the other instance, when we address them directly, the aunt and uncle become part of their name, such as Captain America, Sergeant Pike, Mr. Sandford and Sir Alexander.

      I hope this helps clarify the rule. As for Governor, that’s a title just like Captain, so it would be capitalized as long as there was no ‘my’ or ‘the’ preceding it.

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