Capital letters

By Robert Garran

Once, in a conversation with a speechwriter from the Prime Minister’s Office, I commented on how ridiculous it was that public servants didn’t understand the rules about when and when not to use capital letters. I mentioned the bad habit of starting the word ‘government’ with a capital letter when used generically and not as part of a full title. I thought this was an innocent comment, but it provoked a heated response. My reference to the Australian Government’s Style manual was to no avail—this speechwriter’s views were firmly fixed, and no reference to authority would change his mind.

I soon realised that hardly anybody in government knew about the Style manual or that it is meant to be the authoritative reference for writing in the Australian Government.

When I worked for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, I thought I’d had a big win persuading the department to briefly follow the Style manual in the correct use of capitals. This victory, however, was short-lived: a new secretary was appointed to head the department and wanted things done his way, not the way of the Style manual.

In the light of all this, here are my conclusions and some tips on writing style, and, in particular, on the use of capitals.

The first, general conclusion is that there is no agreement in government—let alone in the wider community—on issues of style. Style is a matter of convention and, in spite of what school teachers, grammarians or other authorities may say, there are no definitive right or wrong practices.

What’s important is that, at a minimum, you are consistent in the style you use in a single document, and preferably across your whole office, team or organisation (and ideally even across the whole of government, but that’s an idle fantasy).

To achieve that kind of consistency, you need a reference point—which is what style guides are for. I like the Style manual—partly due to long familiarity, but also because I think its ‘rules’, for the most part, follow clear and sensible principles.

As for the use of capitals, there are a few points that are not in dispute: use capitals at the start of sentences and for names.

Beyond that, however, even commonplace issues are approached in different ways. One simple rule that the Style manual follows, which would save a lot of grief if people understood it, is to use capitals for proper nouns and lower case for common nouns.

This rule may seem obvious, but people often want to use capitals for words that are, in fact, common nouns.

Think of the cartoon character Felix, a cat. Felix is a particular cat, and Felix is his name, his full name in the cartoon is Felix the Cat. So, in that case, you use a capital letter for ‘Cat’. But let’s say you want to ask someone to feed Felix. You could say, ‘Would you please feed the cat’. Nobody has any problem using a lower-case ‘c’ for ‘cat’ in this instance. It seems like common sense, and it is.

Yet public servants can’t seem to resist using capital letters for words such as ‘government’ and ‘minister’, even in cases parallel to feeding the cat. If you are following the Style manual, the same rule should apply. You should say, ‘please write a letter to the minister’, and ‘the government has decided to crack down on misuse of capital letters’.

You would use capitals, however, if you were saying ‘please write a letter to the Minister for Capital Letters’, or ‘The Government of Australia has decided to crack down on misuse of capital letters’.

Even the Style manual can’t quite let go of bad habits, however. It is, after all, the work of a committee, with vested interests to protect. So there are exceptions to the common noun/proper noun rule; they’re detailed in a section headed ‘Using capitals for terms associated with government’, which begins on page 124. It starts by saying—and I’m paraphrasing—that ‘generally’, terms associated with government should be capitalised according to the normal rules, but there are a few exceptions. Here are a few of those exceptions, and some potentially ambiguous cases where lower case should still be used:

  • The Commonwealth of Australia can be shortened to the Commonwealth. But federal government should stay in lower case.
  • The words state and territory are used in lower case, except sometimes when the Territory refers to the Northern Territory, as it has become a conventional, semi-official name.
  • Government and parliament are capitalised only when part of full formal title, such as the Commonwealth Parliament or the Government of Australia – although Australian Government should be capitalised too (logically it shouldn’t).
  • Some nouns are capitalised ‘to distinguish them from their generic meaning’. These exceptions to the general rule are specifically listed, and you simply have to learn them, and accept the illogicality. They are: the Cabinet, the Treasury, the Crown, the House (meaning either chamber of parliament), and the Budget.
  • But in the case of the Budget, it is not capitalised when it or a derivative is used as an adjective or in plural—so you have budget provisions, the budgetary process or successive federal budgets.

See what trouble you get into when you create an exception to the simple rule? Go figure—or, if you can’t figure it out, consult the Style manual.

I should point out here that, in practice, most departments don’t fully adhere to the Style manual. Many can’t let go of using a capital ‘G’ for government and a capital ‘M’ for minister, even when the Style manual says they shouldn’t. So if that affects you, and if you value your job, just follow the rule for your workplace—assuming you can figure out what that is.

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