Capitalization (AP Style tips for journalism)

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AP Style follows the standard English practice of capitalizing proper nouns, and words derived from proper nouns (such as Italian food or Newtonian physics; but the AP lowercases french fries, which are not actually French). (What’s a proper noun?)

Good Example They stayed with Uncle John at Gracious Living Inn on the shore of Grenada Lake while on vacation in the South.
Capitalize the names of particular people, places or things. (Proper nouns.)  In the above example, “shore” and “vacation” are common nouns.
Good Example They stayed with my uncle at a hotel on the south end of a peaceful lake.
Lowercase descriptions and general categories.

  • When you send a thank-you note to your mother’s brother, you might write “It was good to see you, Uncle.” You’d capitalize the special name you use for him, but “an uncle” and “my favorite uncle” are general categories.
  • “South” when it refers to the geographical region is a proper noun, but “south” as a direction is a common noun.

Avoid overcapitalizing.

Bad Example Jane Smith, a capable Mayor with a graduate degree in Business, questioned whether the Fire Chief belonged on the Committee.
(This example inappropriately capitalizes common nouns, treating general descriptions as if they are formal names.)
Good Example Jane Smith, a capable mayor with a graduate degree in business, questioned whether the fire chief belonged on the committee.
(This version uses only common nouns, but good journalism relies on specific details. This version is free from errors, but it’s too general to be very useful.)
Iffy Example Mayor Jane Smith, who holds an MBA from the Greenstown School of Business, questioned whether Fire Chief Les McBurney belonged on the Downtown Finance Committee.
(Not wrong, but cluttered. These names aren’t all equally newsworthy.)

Good news writing has to do more than avoid proofreading errors. When to use a specific proper noun and when to use a common noun depends on what’s newsworthy about the specific story you’re writing.

So there isn’t a single “correct” way you should always introduce the mayor, or the fire chief, or a college degree, or a government committee.

Details drive good journalism; however, part of the writer’s job is to filter out the unimportant details, so the reader gets the main point of the story.

Good Example Although the mayor questioned whether the fire chief belonged on the Downtown Finance Committee, Les McBurney‘s suggestions drew praise from local business owners.
(If what matters in the story you’ve chosen to write is Les McBurney’s service on the Downtown Finance Committee, then don’t cram distracting details into your sentence.)
Good Example Mayor Jane Smith, citing her MBA credentials, defended the latest wedge she has driven between the fire department and the downtown business sector.
(On the other hand, this version of the story focuses on the mayor’s actions. The other details could come in a later paragraph — if they matter at all.)

There’s nothing special about AP’s rules for capitalization. In standard written English, we capitalize proper nouns.

Good Example They stayed with Uncle John at Gracious Living Inn on the shores of Grenada Lake while vacationing in the South.
John is my uncle. I’d like you to meet Uncle Bob. This car belongs to my uncle, John Parker.

He is staying at an inn, on a lake, and he’s headed south.

Capitalize the names of specific people, places or things. (Proper nouns.)

People often capitalize words they feel are important. In an email, a source might write, “I studied Accounting” or “I’m proud to be a Physical Therapist.” But AP Style is pretty stingy about what gets capitalized.

  • It might seem respectful to capitalize titles like President, Pope, or Governor. But where do you draw the line?
  • If you capitalize Doctor and Professor, what about Cab Driver, Quarterback, Escape Room Host and Rodeo Clown?
  • How about Full-time Stay-at-home Caregiver? Drug Dealer? Bronie Blogger Living in His Mom’s Basement?

In AP style, we lowercase all these job descriptions — but we do capitalize formal titles that are part of names.

Good Example I saw Capt. Picard and Princess Ardala sitting with the bartender Guinan and Mr. Mott the barber.
In this example, the titles Capt. and Princess are part a person’s formal title, but bartender and barber are job descriptions.
Bad Example I saw the Captain and the Princess sitting with Bartender Guinan and Barber Mott.
Two separate issues: rank alone (captain, princess) is not a proper name; job descriptions (bartender, barber) aren’t formal titles.

What impression do you get from these two examples? Both use capitalization correctly, but how helpful are these examples? Which seems more like journalism?

He drove his dad downtown in his car to watch their favorite hockey team at the arena. “Yes, Dad,” he said. “Let’s take your Toyota RAV-4 through the Central Business District to watch the Penguins play at PPG Paints Arena.”

AP Style does capitalize historical time periods like Renaissance, but does not capitalize artistic movements like impressionism, or general subjects like philosophy, feminism, soccer, or ballet.

Job titles like “mall Santa” or “birthday party Spider-Man” include capitals because they derive from proper nouns, as do French, Christianity and Freudianism.

General terms like science, religion, and psychology aren’t derived from proper nouns, so we use lowercase.

More examples of capitalization in news writing:

Bad Example In the past decade, Agriculture was the region’s greatest contributor to the National economy, according to a briefing authored by Senators Bill Smith and Mary Jones.
The words agriculture and national are common nouns. Because the word “Senators” here applies to more than one person, we treat it as a description, not part of the title of either of the people it describes.
Iffy Example The U.S. Department of Agriculture released the National Report on Economic Growth, authored by Senator Bill Smith and Senator Mary Jones.
Awkward. While these proper nouns are correctly capitalized, it’s a dry list of names; but not every name is equally newsworthy.

What’s the actual news here? Below are two perfectly valid ways you might help your reader focus on whatever details that matter to the story you want to tell.

Good Example Agriculture contributed the most tax dollars to the nation’s economy, topping manufacturing and tourism for the first time in decades, according to a Congressional report released Monday.
Good Example Rookie Bill Smith (D-Louisiana) and his longtime rival Mary Jones (R-Mississippi) overcame their differences to honor the region’s agricultural contributions in an emotional Senate briefing Monday.

A handout like this can’t tell you which proper nouns are the most important to your story. (See “What Is Newsworthiness?“)

This is just a brief introduction. I’m not trying to cover every case in which the AP Stylebook offers a guideline on capitalization. Student journalists should get into the habit of looking things up.

  • Working journalists consult their AP Stylebook all the time.
  • See the sections on capitalization and titles.
  • See also specific topics such as art, science, law, sports, etc.

Sidebar on “Black” in the context of race

English is a living language, and as our culture changes, AP style changes, too.

In June 2020, as a direct response to the George Floyd protests, the AP began capitalizing Black, in parallel with terms like Native American, Latino and Asian American.

The term “African American” was popularized by the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, but today’s journalists and activists agree that that “African American” isn’t appropriate for people of color who aren’t Americans. (Imagine you are writing about the Toronto Blue Jays, or reviewing a dance troupe visiting from Nigeria, or writing about people whose citizenship is not easily determined, or irrelevant to the story.)

As of June 30 2020, the AP does not recommend capitalizing white, in part because white supremacist groups have a history of using “White” and “black” as part of an effort to exalt one group and dehumanize the other.

Our language continues to evolve with our culture. (Consider pronouns and gender.)

One thought on “Capitalization (AP Style tips for journalism)

  1. Pingback: I never have time to create materials like this during the academic year. Brand new handout. Easily 10 hours of work. Hoping to post one a week. | Jerz's Literacy Weblog (est. 1999)

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