In another article, we address the challenge of knowing when words need to be capitalized in sentences because they are proper and not common nouns. This article focuses on the narrower question of when to capitalize a job title or military rank.
Just Say No: Chances Are, You Shouldn’t Capitalize That Word
In most cases, a job title/position or military rank should not be capitalized in professional writing contexts:
- John Smith, dean of the ULS School of Medicine, will be the keynote speaker.
- Contact Westbrook High School outreach program coordinator Jane Doe.
- Yesterday, Hazel Crombie—the longest-serving mayor in the history of Springdale—announced her retirement.
- Acme Widgets is currently advertising to fill the position of controller.
We don’t capitalize a person’s title/position/rank when it follows the name; when it is used with the name of a company, an agency, an office, and the like; or when it is used alone.
In other words, we treat a title/position/rank as a common noun or adjective unless it immediately precedes a person’s name (and even then we have exceptions; see below).
The following sentences should help clarify:
- Lieutenant Colonel Peterson commanded the operation.
- Jack Peterson, a lieutenant colonel, commanded the operation.
- A lieutenant colonel, Jack Peterson, commanded the operation.
Sentence 1 uses the rank as a title—that is, as a proper adjective immediately preceding the person’s name. The rank “Lieutenant Colonel” (as well as the abbreviation “Lt. Col.,” which we would use with the person’s full name) should, therefore, be capitalized.
Sentence 2 uses the rank as a common noun—a generic designation rather than a true title because it follows, rather than immediately precedes, the person’s name.
In sentence 3 the rank is also a common noun (in this case functioning as the subject of the verb commanded) and is not being used as a title. The lieutenant’s name is an appositive set off with commas; think of the sentence as saying, “A lieutenant colonel commanded the operation, and his name happens to be Jack Peterson.” (An appositive simply renames, or gives more information about, a noun already mentioned.)
The use of the indefinite article a (or an) before the rank is a clue that we are using the title generically: this lieutenant colonel is just one of many people holding the same rank. And even with the definite article the, capitalization is sometimes unnecessary: “The lieutenant colonel on duty the night of the fire, Jack Peterson, saw no unusual activity.”
These same principles can be applied to any title, position, or rank:
- The math department is hiring a new associate professor.
- The dean of the English department introduced the program’s latest hire, Associate Professor Jane Doe.
- The keynote speaker was John Kerry, former secretary of state.
- George Washington was our nation’s first president.
Note: To avoid ambiguity, we always capitalize the word Speaker when referring to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives. Also, not all style books agree on capitalization rules; be sure to check the style guide adhered to in your workplace.
TEST YOURSELF: According to the information presented in this article, identify the words that are incorrectly capitalized:
- All planning activities will resume when the DHEC Infrastructure Director and the Director of the Division of Water Safety are fully on board.
- The roles of Director of Training and Training Coordinator will continue to be vital as we begin our intensive planning.
- “Participants will learn how to take tests, fill out job applications, and tackle tough job interviews,” said Judy Drysdale, former Professor of Education and current District Superintendent.
- Regional School Health Coordinator Brian Wilson will work with DHEC Regional Community Development Specialists.
- All planning activities will resume when the DHEC infrastructure director and the director of the Division of Water Safety are fully on board.
- The roles of director of training and training coordinator will continue to be vital as we begin our intensive planning.
- “Participants will learn how to take tests, fill out job applications, and tackle tough job interviews,” said Judy Drysdale, former professor of education and current district superintendent.
- Regional School Health Coordinator Brian Wilson will work with DHEC regional community development specialists.
Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2022.