Capitalise with care

Using capitalisation strategically and sparingly helps to make your business communications professional, accessible and easy to read, so it’s worth the effort to get it right.
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If you often find yourself wondering whether you should capitalise the first letter of certain words when writing reports, web copy and other business communications, you’re not alone. Whether or not to use initial caps – or ‘title case’ – is often a cause of confusion, and often overdone.

The advice in the online Australian Government Style Manual (AGSM) is clear: minimise the use of capital or ‘upper case’ letters. Aside from starting sentences with a capital letter, use them mainly for proper nouns – that is, names.

Writing in ‘lower case’ – without capitals – is more friendly. It is less visually distracting, and better from an accessibility perspective.

People often overuse capitalisation to emphasise words or convey respect. The AGSM advises to adopt the mindset that using lower case for job titles, for example, is not a sign of disrespect to the people in those roles. In fact, it shows great respect for your reader.

An easy read

Capital letters are harder to read as they lack the distinctive shape variations found in lower-case letters. This makes it more challenging for readers to recognise words and phrases quickly, and can disrupt the flow of reading. For example:

IS THIS SENTENCE EASY TO READ?

Is This Sentence Easier To Read?

Is this sentence the easiest to read?

People with visual impairments often use screen readers or other assistive technology to interpret written content, and the overuse of capitalisation can confuse these tools and make it harder for the user to get the information they need. Interestingly, screen readers read words written in all capitals as acronyms, not individual words. It’s a lose-lose situation as the reader is confused and your message is lost.

So, all these things considered, when should you give your words the capital treatment? Let’s explore a few common examples that may have had you scratching your head.

Is it a name or just ‘a thing’?

A memorandum of understanding, a free trade agreement, a city council, an annual report: all are things that can be written in lower-case letters. That is, until they become part of a name, as in these examples:

  • Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement
  • Sydney City Council
  • Australian Broadcasting Corporation Annual Report 2023.

Headings

The most common capitalisation style for headings and subheadings in Australian publications these days is ‘sentence case’ – that is, where capitals are only used for the first letter of the first word and for names. This is especially the case on websites and in other online content, where simplicity is key. However, title case headings, with an initial capital on each word, are common in US content.

You might choose title case for the main heading and sentence case for all other headings in a piece of writing. Whichever style you choose, stick to it from start to finish.

Job titles

Use title case for job titles that are attributed to a specific person or specified in legislation.

  • Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attended the conference.
  • Chief Executive Officer Natasha Wild chaired the meeting.
  • Samira Singh was appointed as Marketing Manager last year.

But use lower case for generic references to jobs or roles, or when referring to more than one person.

  • The prime ministers of Australia and the United Kingdom attended the conference.
  • The chief executive officer role is yet to be filled.
  • Jay is one of four marketing managers working in the company’s head office.

Some organisations prefer to make job titles all lower case when the title comes after the person’s name. Example: ‘Stuart McAlister, chief information officer’.

Use lower case if the person is no longer in the role you are referencing. Example: ‘former marketing manager Mary Ng’.

You could also use lower case when referring to people from outside your organisation whose titles may not be familiar to your readers. Example: ‘Sarah Cook was appointed as the company’s brand specialist’.

Qualifications

Use lower case when referring to tertiary qualifications generally, and title case when the qualification is attributed to a certain educational institution.

  • Sam has a bachelor’s degree in commerce.
  • Sam attained a Bachelor of Commerce from La Trobe University.

Government terms

The AGSM is a great resource for double-checking the capitalisation of names of departments and agencies – and the word ‘government’. The exact names of governments should be in title case, with generic mentions and references to multiple governments in lower case.

  • Australian Government
  • NSW Government
  • ACT Government

but

  • the Australian and NSW governments
  • local government
  • the state government
  • the federal government

Programs, schemes and initiatives

A quick online search may reveal the correct capitalisation of the names of government and private sector programs, schemes, initiatives, frameworks, agreements and the like. They’re often in title case. But note whether the word ‘program’ or ‘scheme’, for instance, is part of the exact name, as this will determine whether it needs an initial capital letter.

  • NSW Government Graduate Program [‘Program’ is part of the exact name]
  • Elder Care Support program [‘program’ is not part of the exact name]

Defined terms

Publications such as annual reports and research reports may include ‘defined terms’. These are abbreviated terms, in title case, that have a specific meaning and are established at first mention. For instance, a business may refer to its multiple legal entities under the term ‘the Group’, after defining which entities this term covers. ‘The Group’ is then used consistently throughout the report.

When terms aren’t defined as such, there’s no need to use a capital letter for the second or subsequent mentions.

  • the NSW Government Graduate Program then the program
  • The Australian National University then the university
  • the Remuneration Committee then the committee

Indeed, it can be confusing to use a capital letter for the shortened form if the written content mentions more than one program, university or committee, for instance.

Referencing external material

When referencing external sources such as books, articles and reports, replicate the capitalisation – and spelling – as it appears in the original text.

  • Title case: United Nations Annual Report 2023
  • Sentence case: Issues paper – The experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse people with disability

It’s a common style to capitalise the first letter of a subtitle after a dash, as above.

For ease of reading, some organisations prefer to use sentence case for the names of all sources in footnotes or endnotes, even those that appear in title case on the source publication.

Adhering to style guides

In the realm of business communications, consistency is king. Be sure to follow your organisation’s style guide for specific rules regarding capitalisation. If your organisation doesn’t have one, consider adopting a recognised style guide such as the AGSM to maintain consistency in your writing.

Capitalisation as your communication ally

Let capitalisation be your trusted ally in crafting effective and impactful business communications. Using capitalisation strategically and sparingly can:

  • enhance readability and clarity
  • help you comply with accessibility requirements
  • increase cross-platform consistency.

It can help make your business communications professional, accessible and easy to read, so it’s worth the effort to get it right.

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