Not hats: capital letters (or, in typographical parlance, upper case).

Don’t shout at people

When the interweb and e-mail were new, it took (some) people a while to figure out that typing your message all in caps is the typographical equivalent of shouting. Compare: please don’t forget to do this (gentle reminder) versus PLEASE DON’T FORGET TO DO THIS (angry, hectoring, perhaps a bit desperate, possibly crazy).

Used sparingly, capitals can be an effective way to express emphasis (especially if you’re not typing in HTML or rich text) – but the key word here is ‘sparingly’; if everything is emphasised, nothing is (the lawyer who cried ‘urgent’?). Or you look like you’re shouting.

 Proper names

That is, names of persons and places (Beyoncé, Tennessee), which always take an initial capital – unless done for typographical (or other) effect (the writers e.e. cummings, bpNichol and bell hooks come to mind).

 Sometimes proper names can lose their initial capital when they become disassociated with an actual place: you would not be wrong to write brussels sprout, french letter, french window, venetian blinds.


Old-fashioned usage is to go all out with capitals on these; it’s more modern to ease up (but I’m a fan of that officially capitalised T in Her Majesty The Queen).

When referring to a specific person by title, it may be better to use upper case: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, pleased welcome the Prime Minister of Canada!’

But when you’re using a job or other title as a generic description, the capitals can go: ‘When Sir John A. Macdonald was prime minister, there were less rigid rules about conflicts of interest’.

Similarly, it’s really not necessary to capitalise every routine instance of president, chair etc.  Or words like state or province, unless you’re referring to the government of the jurisdiction in a legal or technical sense: He was born in the state of Alabama but The Province of Newfoundland and Labrador has issued bonds.

It is not (or perhaps that should be NOT) necessary to use an upper-case J every time you write the title judge or justice. Yes, Justice Abella; but There are nine justices of the Supreme Court of Canada and The judge gave brief oral reasons.

In the humanities and social sciences, capitals are disappearing from titles of books and articles (except for the first word and any proper names); it’s also generally regarded as better design to omit capitals in headings and headlines (the way I have in this tip up to this point). This may yet come to the law.


Periods were once de rigueur but now may be omitted for a cleaner look: ABA, FWB, LCBO, NAFTA, MP, Mr, QC, UK, USA, WTF etc.

 Capitals for Important Words

Please resist the temptation to slap a capital letter on a word as a form of emphasis: you run the risk of what was called, in an earlier GWWT, the Winnie-the-Pooh Effect (‘I have been I have been Foolish and Deluded … and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.’).

Next: confusing pairs, part 6

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. Love your articles, Neil. Just read your piece on capitalization. PLEASE 🙂 keep them coming!

  2. Thanks, Jan! There is more to come

  3. If you enjoy these articles, please read Neil Guthrie’s book, “Guthrie’s guide to better legal writing”, published by Irwin Law. It is both informative and entertaining!

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)