Capitals, Defined Terms and Acronyms

Go easy with these.


Where there are too many words with capital letters, the visual effect is jarring and over-emphatic. Don’t succumb to what Bryan Garner calls ‘the unfortunate tendency toward contagious capitalization’ in legal writing.

Above all, Resist the Temptation to Capitalise Important Words, which can look a bit Winnie the Pooh (‘I have been Foolish and Deluded … and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.’).

By all means say ‘the Government of Canada issued bonds’, but when the reference is more general, you can lose the upper case: ‘the government wants to extend tax breaks to …’ – or ‘the federal government’. Similarly, ‘The Province entered into an agreement with…’ but ‘former president Bill Clinton’. Except as a defined term in a legal document, ‘the board, ‘the company’, ‘the chair’.

Litigators take note: outside the context of a factum or other formal document, you really don’t need to stick a capital on every instance of ‘judge’, ‘justice’ and ‘court’. Do refer to ‘Justice Cromwell’, but in your legal update it’s cleaner and more modern to write ‘The judge ordered …’ and ‘The court decided…’ A capital letter in these cases is not the sign of respect it is sometimes said to be (‘the Judge is an idiot’? – or perhaps that’s ‘Idiot’); it’s a just hold-over from the days when all nouns were capitalised in English. Nouns still take the upper case in German, but the practice began to fall out of general usage in all but lawyers’ English after about 1750.

I do like the official use of a capital T for ‘Her Majesty The Queen’, however. But you’ll need to convince me why ‘internet’ needs an upper-case I.

Oh, and no capital after a colon (unless the word would have one anyway, like Canada). The Globe & Mail does this, and it irritates me. The colon doesn’t indicate the end of a sentence: it marks the pause before ‘delivering the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words’ (Fowler, Modern English Usage).

Defined terms

A related issue.

Remember that if you’re writing a client-friendly blog post or article, a thicket of defined terms is off-putting, and often unnecessary. You aren’t drafting a contract that needs to have airtight, interlocking terminology.

If Alvin Chang is suing Jonathan Cohen, and there are no other Changs or Cohens in the picture, please don’t do this: The plaintiff, Alvin Chang (“Chang”), alleges that the defendant, Jonathan Cohen (“Cohen”), … If the dispute with Cohen is about a contract, and one contract only, there is no need to define it as (the “Agreement”). Just call it the contract or the agreement. Heck, mix things up and call it both; it will add a little variety.


Acronyms can be useful, but they become annoying if overdone – or even impenetrable. Examples from Lexology:

When your brand name is a claim—NAD cleans and straightens without support from advertiser
Venable LLP
There is lore that the beauty industry does not challenge itself sufficiently before NAD, and for this reason NAD brings more monitoring challenges…

CFPB proposes to delay TRID to October 3, 2015
Maurice Wutscher LLP
As referenced in our prior update, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a proposed rule to change the effective date for…

If you’re an advertising insider or know beauty industry lore, you may also know that NAD is the National Advertising Division of the US ad industry’s self-regulatory system, administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus – but would a law firm’s client know that (or even an ad agency’s)? And while someone in financial services may recognise CFPB, I’m not so sure about TRID. It turns out it stands for the TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure rule – whatever that is. Wouldn’t it be better to describe it as the ‘”know before you owe” rule for consumer lending transactions’? (And don’t use reference as a verb.)

Next up: think of your reader

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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