The Complete Writer: Chapter 4 *FREE READ*

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The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Chapter 4

Not the corporate kind of overcapitalization! The writerly kind of overcapitalization.

This happens every time we at The Copyeditor’s Desk have to edit a set of author bios for an issue of one of our client scholarly journals. The journal’s senior editors ask contributors to toot their own horns in short squibs that are collected at the back of the book. And my, they do toot. In majuscule!

Olivia Boxankle is an Associate Professor of Cultural and Linguistic Studies in the Department of English at the Great Desert University. She earned her PhD in Postmodern Babble at Erewhon College, after which she spent ten years as Adjunct Instructor of Early Unemployability Studies at Podunk Community College, before joining GDU in 1999 as an Assistant Professor.

The tenure track does not confer divinity upon its members. Therefore, titles such as assistant professor, associate professor, or even full professor are not capitalized unless they are used as part of the person’s name.

  • Olivia Boxankle is an associate professor.
  • We saw Professor Olivia Boxankle’s outstanding presentation at last winter’s Modern Language Association conference.

Now let’s consider Prof. Harvey Wallbanger, who is president of the Great Desert University:

  • The newspaper mentioned the university President’s salary in an article reporting next semester’s 25 percent tuition increase.


The only person who gets to have his or her title as president capitalized is the President of the United States. Period. Well . . . unless you’re writing in and for some other country, in which case the title is lower-cased like those of other mortals.

  • Barack Obama was President of the United States.

Back to the bios: The name of an academic subject is lower-cased, unless it happens to be a proper name or place name.

  • She is a professor of geology.
  • She is a professor of ethnic studies.
  • She is a professor of Spanish.
  • She is a professor of English.

However, if we cite the name of an academic subject as part of a department’s name, it may be capitalized in that context:

  • She is a professor in the Department of Cultural and Linguistic Studies.
  • She teaches cultural and linguistic studies.
  • She teaches in the Ethnic Studies Department.
  • She teaches ethnic studies.

It seems so self-evident, no? Then why do people write things like a Professor of Ethnic Studies?

Because . . . in the corporate world, people’s titles are often capitalized because the boss said so. Or because the marketing department said so. Companies, like journals, magazines, and newspapers, have their own in-house style based on a standard style manual (Associated Press style, in the case of businesses) but with its own embellishments. One such embellishment is capitalization of the Honored Leaders’ titles, even though in the real world that would be . . . well, wrong:

  • Joe Blow is Chief Executive Officer of the Blowhard Corporation.

But books and scholarly journals generally follow Chicago style or the style manual appropriate to research articles for their discipline (such as the American Psychological Association or the Modern Language Association manuals). These tend to inveigh against pointless capitalization. You may have to glorify your current boss with capital letters. But once you’re no longer working at that company, knock it off!

And don’t do it at all for faculty members and their generic academic disciplines. It peeves the editor.

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