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Web writing wonders: A tutorial on titles for people

What are the rules for proper online citation of individuals’ professional titles?

Capitals count, particularly in job titles. However, what rules apply for web writing, when it comes to capitalizing professional and personal titles?

Professional writers may turn to several sets of style standards, including the Yahoo Style Guide (a primary source of guidelines for online writing), the Associated Press Stylebook (a long-time handbook to print journalism standards) and the Modern Language Association Handbook (a traditional sourcebook for academic and research paper formatting).

For web writing, the Yahoo Style Guide is a popular resource, offering detailed and specific standards for various stylistic formatting issues. For example, the Yahoo Style Guide includes a section specifying rules for capitalization of people’s titles online.

Here is a basic guide to online capitalization of individuals’ personal or professional titles, based on information from the Yahoo Style Guide.

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A person’s title should be capitalized, if it appears immediately before his or her name.

In such a case, a personal or professional title may be considered to be part of the proper noun (the person’s name). This Yahoo Style Guide rule of capitalization applies to official positions in government, religious or ecclesiastical hierarchies and corporate or organizational entities.

Fictional and hypothetical examples of this capitalization might include:

  • President Justin B. Potus invited former President Seymour Links to a private dinner at the White House.
  • Chief Justice Stormy Gavil shook hands with International Olympic Committee Chairman Leif Garland.
  • Elementary school Principal Bella Scholari sent a personal memo to club Treasurer Ernie Moneyman.
  • Pope Benedict XVI blessed city Mayor Mia Townsman during her visit to the Vatican City, accompanied by U.S. Marine Corps General Will March.
  • The Reverend Alf Holyfield chaired the interfaith council of churches for the entire city.

The Yahoo Style Guide also specifies that honorific titles, such as “Reverend” (for clergy) and “Honorable” (for a judge) should be preceded by “the” in proper noun (capitalized) usage.

Adapted by this user from Pixabay public domain photo.

A person’s title should not be capitalized, if it appears apart from his or her name.

If a personal or professional title is included without immediately preceding that individual’s proper name, then that title is not capitalized, according to the Yahoo Style Guide. In such usage, the title is used more generically.

Here are a few examples (again, fictional and hypothetical):

  • The chairman of the board appointed a newcomer to serve as liaison to the mayor.
  • Stan Letterman had never served as postmaster general before, but he was ready for the challenge.
  • Once the votes were counted, Crystal Ball was elected president of the public library’s strategic planning committee.
  • My favorite teacher of all time was Mr. Walter Whiz, a trigonometry professor at the local university.

What additional considerations might apply to proper capitalization of people’s titles?

Although popular and familiar titles, such as familial tags, are not clearly specified in the Yahoo Style Guide, a similar pattern of capitalization may be applied to these citations.

Consider these fictional and hypothetical examples:

  • My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller; that’s where Mom heard several tall tales.
  • When Father married Mother, he already had a son, so he was a father before.
  • I call my aunt on my mother’s side Marnie, but her husband is Uncle Jake.
  • My brother is a monk, so he is known as Brother Arnold.

Generally, a common-sense approach may apply to such formal and informal usages.

Titles can be tricky, particularly when it comes to capitalizations, but a clear set of standards (such as the Yahoo Style Guide) can make the clarification much simpler for web writers.

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