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Newbie Capitalization Question

I have just started as a tech writer, and I previously considered myself an expert capitalizer.  However, I have noticed where I work, previous documents have capitalized words I typically wouldn't capitalize.  For example, if the type of a document is a transition strategy (TS), it is capitalized throughout the entire document each time it is used.  I would have considered this a common noun.  Also, items like standard work order (SWO) or plan of action and milestone (POA&M) are capitalized throughout.  I also typically would treat this as a common noun.  I thought maybe in the engineering world, these are treated as proper, but find myself second- and third-guessing.  I have searched countless style manuals and asked many people, to no avail.

Any thoughts or input?



  • I agree with you. I think of proper nouns as names. If the noun isn't a name, I usually don't treat it as a proper noun (although I'm always looking up the rule for common nouns that contain proper adjectives, e.g. English muffins, German chocolate cake, French fries, now I'm hungry...). I can't speak to what the larger "engineering world" does, but the engineers I've worked with like to do things properly. They appreciate opportunities to improve their writing by consulting with an expert, and they would be the first to say that they don't know all the rules!

    I have seen a lot of over-capitalization in documents I've worked on. I wonder if, on some level, we are subconsciously reverting to the German capitalization rules, a culture-wide identity crisis?

    At my job, my colleagues trust me to make decisions about capitalization, spelling, punctuation, and so on, but I've earned that trust by being respectful and open to debate. I would recommend doing a gut-check on this. Ask these questions: 
    Whose writing are you correcting? Will it offend them, and are they more powerful than you? 
    How important is the document (is this a document that a customer will use)? 
    Do you anticipate having to defend your editing, and if so, can you find an external authority (Chicago Manual seems almost universally accepted) that will reinforce your feeling? 

    You can always try a correction and see what happens. If an organization lets you go over a capitalization disagreement, you are probably better off not working for them, anyway!
  • tkistertkister Posts: 4
    It doesn't really matter, as long as you are consistent. It is best to have an agreed-upon style manual (or two or three, prioritized), and then refer to that. Then you don't have to spend time worrying about capitalization – it's simply a matter of referring to the manual(s).

    You can also use style sheets (which are project-specific mini style guides) to document terms that might need to be revised, and to ask for feedback on how the capitalization should be treated. I have found that it's not worth arguing over things like this – if someone wants those terms capitalized, then capitalize them. No biggie. Save your energy for the more important battles.

    FYI, I have found that when a term precedes an acronym or abbreviation, it is common to use initial capitals, even for common nouns. For example, the term "application programming interface" is often presented as: "Application Programming Interface (API)," rather than "application programming interface (API)." Using initial capitals makes it easier to see the first letter of each word and, therefore, to understand the reason for the acronym or abbreviation.
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