I’ve edited thousands of business content items, and there’s one error that I see time and time again.
The content author might be a CEO, technical specialist, expert in their field…but this one mistake makes their writing ineffectual and detracts from their credibility.
It’s the capitalisation of common nouns for emphasis in their writing.
I’m not talking about using ALL CAPS WHEN YOU WANT TO SCREAM. I’m talking about using Capital Letters (like that) for common nouns.
So, why do so many people judiciously add a sprinkling of capitals throughout their writing?
The most common reason is a lack of confidence in your writing. If you don’t have confidence your message will hit the mark (or you don’t know what mark you’re trying to hit), you may add additional elements like capitals in the hope they do the job for you.
I often see this when the author wants to emphasise something as being important, such as ‘the Business Process’, or ‘the Management Style’ or ‘the First Person to answer correctly Wins!’.
Unfortunately, you’re not adding emphasis when you do this.
You are confusing and alienating your reader.
You’re also not giving them enough credit that they can figure out for themselves the important part of your message.
Back to the basics of capitalising nouns
In English, proper nouns—those that are the actual specific name of people, places or things, such as ‘Sydney’ or ‘John’—are the only nouns that get capitalised.
“Proper nouns are capitalised. Common nouns are not.”
The rules of capitalisation for common nouns are simple. Unless they start a sentence, don’t capitalise them.
This also extends to the type of job someone has, unless you are stating their actual job title. Here’s an example:
‘The president made a speech.’
‘President Obama made a speech.’
See how the specific title is capitalised, but not when we’re writing in a general way? In the first example, the word ‘president’ is non-specific; it could refer to any president, therefore it is not a proper noun, and is not capitalised.
The number one rule of writing (well I think so anyway) should be: do not get in the way of the reader.
Make it difficult, and they’ll be too busy trying to decipher what you’ve written to actually take in what you wanted to tell them.
Funnily enough, I see overcapitalisation most often in content that has been written for the purpose of lead generation, or to prompt action on the part of a potential buyer.
Again, you need to give your reader credit. If you want to communicate to them, add value.
People don’t enjoy feeling they’re being sold to, and one of the most obvious signals is when you capitalise what they must know or do. Write naturally. If your messaging isn’t effective enough without capitalising when you shouldn’t, the extra capitals won’t help either. Get help from a professional writer!
Well-written content that doesn’t attempt to gain attention by breaking the rules will always resonate better with your audience.
If you just can’t help yourself…
If you choose to disregard my advice, and absolutely have to capitalise, here’s the one exception when it’s acceptable.
When you do it consistently.
Don’t tell your reader you’ve worked on the ‘Migration, Administration, maintenance, and Deployment’ of a system, and leave them wondering if there was a reason ‘maintenance’ wasn’t given the same significance as the other items.
Again, it comes down to not getting in your reader’s way. Don’t confuse them and detract from your actual message.
Now, over to you.
Look at something you’ve written recently, whether it’s been an email to a colleague, potential customer, job application, social media post or business proposal.
Have you capitalised nouns other than proper nouns? If so, why do you think you did that? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.