Q&A: Capitalisation in the capital

Each week, we chat about the quirks & anomalies of the English language. This week, we explore want to know which words have a capital letter and which do not…

Q: Hi AWC, I just got back from Australia’s capital.
A: The letter A?

Q: Haha, no, Canberra. And when I was there, I went to see parliament in session – a good chance to witness the federal government in action, including all the ministers. Now, should any of those words have capital letters?
A: First up, was that “government in action” or “government inaction”?

Q: Haha. So dry. So droll.
A: Actually, the whole topic of capitalising words is quite the worm-filled can.

Q: Lay it on me – I can handle a little “capital punishment”…
A: Nice. Okay, well let’s start with the easy ones: first word in a sentence, days of the week and months of the year (but not season names or terms like “leap year”). Capitalisation is mostly about proper nouns – actual names, specific things or unique places.

Q: Unique places? Like the place where I lost my—
A: Ahem, that’s enough detail.

Q: Huh? The place where I lost my first tooth?
A: Oh. We thought you were going to say something else. Yes, so you’d say Grand Central Station, the Eiffel Tower and the Big Banana. Also, you’d say Northern Territory, but northern Victoria. (One is a name, the other helps position it.) While we’re at it, for the words “state” and “territory”, they remain lowercase unless attached to an actual name (e.g. State Emergency Service or Australian Capital Territory).

Q; And brands or company names?
A: Usually capitalised. Despite their ongoing love affair with using lowercase lettering in their logos and marketing…

Q: Hey, come on now. Everyone knows that things just sound so much better when your headphones have a lowercase “b” on the side of them. It’s a proven fact…
A: Whatever you say. Trading names typically have a capital letter, unless they brand themselves without, like “adidas”. (Adidas does need a capital when it begins a sentence though, like in this one.)

Q: And what about a person’s title? It feels like sometimes they’re capitalised and sometimes not.
A: Yes, it’s a mixed bag. According to the Fairfax Media Style Guide or the Australian Government’s Style manual, if a title is a formal position, then it’s capitalised. This includes the Governor-General, the Queensland Premier, Minister for Transport, etc. However, when speaking generally or as plurals, they are lowercase: “Both premiers will speak with their relevant minister about the issue.”

Q: What about when writing about prime ministers?
A: When referring to the current Prime Minister, it’s always written in caps, no matter what. Former prime ministers however are lowercase. Other similar exceptions are the Treasurer, the Queen, the President and other heads of state. So, “At the summit meeting, the Prime Minister wore a silly shirt alongside President Obama.” See how it works?

Q: Yep. And government or parliament?
A: Again, lowercase unless it’s in a specific name (“NSW Government” or “Parliament House”). Note that unique things like the Budget get a capital.

Q: Often I see “Chairman” or “Director” of a company as caps, mid-sentence. What’s your take on that one?
A: Generally, everyone likes to see their job title capitalised as it looks more important. And for the title on a business card or email signature, that’s fine. But if it’s simply included in a sentence, lowercase is grammatically correct. (Your boss may disagree though.)

Q: So you’d write “Professor Severus Snape” or “Director Fury”. But then, “The director will be attending the professor’s lecture”?
A: Exactly.

Q: Okay. So my original sentence about Canberra – it was correct to keep parliament, federal government and ministers in lowercase?
A: Yes, as none of these is an official title (it’s “the Australian Government”). Ironically, in this case the nation’s capital didn’t require any more capitals. Enough “big heads” already perhaps?

Q: So dry. So droll… And an excellent advertisement for “capitalism”!
A: You know that’s not what that means, right?

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