6.2 Capitalisation and Special Fonts: Order or Chaos?

It may seem incredible that something as simple as the use of capital letters and special fonts can so easily become complex and problematic when the primary purpose of both these features in academic and scientific writing tends to be clarification. The fact is, however, that capitalisation and special fonts can potentially cause as much confusion as they attempt to resolve, especially if they are used both extensively and inconsistently. Different disciplines and fields tend to employ capitalisation and special fonts in particular ways, some of them using these features far more than others, so do check university and department guidelines to see if any advice is offered regarding the use of capitalisation and special fonts in your thesis. Whatever guidelines you are following, however, it is essential to keep in mind that the overuse or unnecessary use of capitals and special fonts in any thesis can create an impression of clutter, become distracting for the reader and defeat the purpose of using these elements in the first place, and this is the case even when they are used consistently; when they are used inconsistently, chaos can be the most pronounced result. Generally speaking, keeping the use of capitalisation and special fonts to a minimum is good practice, then, as is using these features in a logical and organised fashion and with enough consistency to allow them to emphasise and distinguish precisely what they should.

6.2.1 Capitalisation for Names, Titles and Other Elements

The use of an initial capital letter on the first word of a sentence to indicate the beginning of the sentence is straightforward and rarely presents problems for authors. An initial capital is sometimes used after a colon as well, although, strictly speaking, a colon does not end a sentence or indicate a new one, so in British English a lowercase letter generally follows a colon, but in American English a capital can be used in this position if the colon introduces what can be read as a complete sentence. When a colon introduces a list, a quotation or similar material, a capital often follows in both kinds of English; the use of capitalisation in such situations tends to depend on the nature of the material and the preferences of the author (on punctuation in relation to lists, see Section 5.5.2, and in relation to quotations, Chapter 8). University and department guidelines rarely provide much detailed advice on the use of capitals, but when they do they will usually focus on two categories of titles: the titles and headings for the thesis itself, and the titles of any books, journals, essays, chapters, web sites, poems, plays and so on that are mentioned in the thesis. The first will usually be associated with the structure of a thesis, while the second will generally be treated in conjunction with the referencing style required. Sometimes one system of capitalisation will apply to both categories and all titles, but such uniform treatment is not the case as often as might be expected, so special care should always be taken to notice any different requirements for different types and locations of titles and headings.

With regard to the titles and headings of the thesis itself, capitals may be required, for instance, only for the initial letter of the thesis title and any proper nouns in the title – ‘A case study of Charlotte Smith: poet and novelist’ – or initial capitals may be needed on all main words in the title: ‘A Case Study of Charlotte Smith: Poet and Novelist.’ A capital may have to appear at the beginning of a subtitle following a colon, en dash or em dash – ‘A case study of Charlotte Smith: Poet and novelist’ – or the subtitle may not use capitals at all although the first part of the title uses them on all main words: ‘A Case Study of Charlotte Smith: poet and novelist.’ Occasionally, block capitals (with no lowercase letters at all) are used for the main title. The pattern of capitalisation used for the title of the thesis may also apply to some or all of the chapter titles and even to the headings and subheadings used to structure and divide the chapters. If a numbered system of headings is used, the same pattern of capitalisation might be used on all heading levels, but using different patterns of capitalisation for different heading levels is an effective way of distinguishing the levels of unnumbered headings as long as all headings of a single level use the exact same pattern of capitalisation and each level’s pattern is distinct from that of others (see also Section 6.1 above). The pattern(s) of capitalisation you choose for the titles and headings in your thesis should meet all university and department requirements and help clarify the structure of your thesis and its sections.

As I mentioned above, the pattern of capitalisation used for the title of a thesis can also apply to the titles of any sources cited in the thesis or a different pattern may be required for recording those sources. The capitalisation of book titles can vary from that of journal titles, and the capitalisation of article and chapter titles within the same style are often different again: initial capitalisation of all main words in a title is more common on journal and book titles, for instance, than on article and chapter titles, which often use an initial capital only on the first word and proper nouns. The pattern should always be consistent for each type of title, which means that the different patterns of capitalisation actually used in titles as they appear in the sources themselves should not be retained. Retaining the capitalisation of titles found in sources will result in variations in the capitalisation patterns of similar titles recorded in a thesis, and although this may be a sign of scrupulous attention to the originals, it will connect and distinguish titles inappropriately and come across as inconsistent to readers; it will, in short, undermine part of the reason for using distinct and consistent patterns of capitalisation in the first place. An exception is presented by titles in foreign languages: while they can observe the capitalisation patterns used for English titles in a thesis, different rules often apply (for more information on using foreign languages, see Butcher et al., 2006, Section 6.6, pp.246–247 and Appendices 5, 7, 9 and 10; the Chicago Manual of Style, 2003, Chapter 10; Ritter, 2005, Chapter 12). Whatever patterns of capitalisation you use for the titles of the sources you cite, they should effectively mark titles as titles, be consistent within each category (books, articles etc.) and, when necessary, consistently distinct between them.

Capitals are also used to distinguish and emphasise proper nouns or names, which can be straightforward, but such capitalisation often depends on a word’s role and position in a sentence, so the use of capitals can vary on that basis. It is usually simple to determine when to use initial capitals on personal names: ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Sally Smith,’ for instance, should definitely bear initial capitals. However, certain proper nouns can present greater challenges because capitals are often used on them to distinguish the specific uses of such nouns from their more general uses, and the capitalisation of other words associated with proper nouns varies accordingly. It is therefore imperative that initial capitals be used appropriately and consistently, which can prove somewhat complicated at times. Personal titles and ranks should be capitalised if they accompany a name, for example, and especially when they appear immediately before the name, so the ‘king’ in ‘King George’ should bear a capital, but not the ‘king’ in ‘the king of England,’ and the same principle applies in the following cases: ‘Prime Minister Trudeau,’ but ‘the prime minister,’ ‘Professor Taylor,’ but ‘a professor of mathematics,’ ‘Earl Henry of Huntingdon,’ but ‘the earl of Huntington’ and ‘Pope Francis,’ but ‘the pope.’ When a rank or title is used alone as a name, it usually bears an initial capital – ‘Hello, Father’ and ‘Dear Pope’ – and initial capitals should also be used when referring to an honour, degree or award (‘the Scotiabank Giller Prize’ and ‘Bachelor of Arts’), though for degrees, abbreviations consisting of all capitals (BA) or a combination of capitals and lowercase letters (PhD) with or without full stops (‘B.A.’ and ‘Ph.D.’ are also acceptable) are often used (see Section 6.3).

Religious names and terminology are often capitalised, but not always, and you may choose for your own reasons (if your university, department and thesis committee allow it) to use lowercase letters for religious terms that are usually capitalised in English. Conventionally speaking, however, all references to a monotheistic deity should appear with an initial capital: ‘God,’ ‘Allah,’ ‘the Trinity’ and ‘the Lord.’ Although pronouns used for the deity can be capitalised (God in His wisdom), and in complex theological discussions this distinction can be helpful, this practice is not necessary, and in most cases the text is much tidier without it. For the gods and goddesses of polytheistic religions, only proper names should be capitalised: ‘the god of love’ and ‘Isis, protector of the dead.’ Capitalisation of sacred or religious rites is not uniform, so ‘compline’ is fine, but so is ‘Matins,’ and the same is the case with ‘a mass’ and ‘the Mass’; consistency in usage within your thesis is the goal in such instances. ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ ‘Muslim’ and the like are normally capitalised, and so are ‘church’ and ‘cathedral’ when they refer to a specific church or church building – ‘the Catholic Church’ and ‘Worcester Cathedral’ – but not on their own (‘the church’ and ‘the cathedral’) except in specific historical contexts (‘the Church’ meaning ‘the Catholic Church’ in the Middle Ages, for instance). Similarly, ‘the Bible’ and ‘the Koran’ use capitals, but ‘biblical’ does not, and the word ‘prophet’ bears an initial capital when it refers to Muhammad (the Prophet), but not when it is used more generally (e.g., ‘a biblical prophet’).

Political terms such as ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ or ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have rather specific meanings when capitalised, while ‘Commons,’ ‘House’ and similar political words require capitalisation to avoid ambiguity, but there is no need to capitalise ‘parliament’ because there is very little potential for confusion. The names of other institutions and organisations should also bear initial capitals – ‘the World Health Organization,’ ‘the British Library’ and ‘the Ford Motor Company’ – as should trademark or proprietary names such as ‘Camaro,’ ‘Hoover’ and ‘Xerox,’ with which special care should be taken, as generic terms are often more appropriate (‘muscle car,’ for instance, ‘vacuum cleaner’ and ‘photocopier’). If a trade name is used as a verb, it should not be capitalised: ‘I hoovered the carpet.’ Finally, the names of schools, colleges, universities and movements should use initial capitals: ‘St Michael’s University School,’ ‘York University,’ ‘the Group of Seven’ and ‘Romanticism’ (with ‘Romantic’ referring to a movement in art and literature and thus conveying a meaning very different from that of ‘romantic’).

Geographical locations, if specific, should bear initial capitals, as should any generic terms that are actually part of the name – ‘Canada,’ ‘New York City’ (but ‘the city of St John’s’) and ‘Lake Huron and Lake Erie’ (but ‘the lakes Huron and Erie’). The capitalisation of compass directions varies, but these elements usually only bear capitals if they indicate a recognised entity, whether cultural or political: ‘Northern Ireland’ and ‘the Middle East’ but usually ‘the northern United States’ and ‘southern Canada.’ For postal codes including letters, capitals are used (A6J 3H8). The names for astronomical entities are a little different, with ‘the Milky Way’ using capitals, but not ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ except (especially in specifically astronomical contexts) to distinguish ‘the Sun and Moon’ of the earth’s solar system from other suns and moons. The names of days, months, festivals, holidays and historical and geological periods are generally capitalised – ‘Thursday,’ ‘November,’ ‘the Chinese New Year,’ ‘Thanksgiving,’ ‘Ramadan,’ ‘the Renaissance,’ ‘the Stone Age’ and ‘the Middle Ages’ – but not always (e.g., ‘the medieval period’). For eras such as AD (Anno Domini) and BC (Before Christ), capitals are used, as they are for similar abbreviations (see Section 6.3 below), but the names of modern periods, such as ‘the age of steam’ or ‘the space age’ often do not use capitals, and the same is the case with the names of seasons – ‘winter’ and ‘spring’ – unless they are personified (e.g., ‘the north wind is the breath of Winter’). When personified, many other words (‘Liberty’ is a good example) that would normally appear entirely in lowercase letters are also given an initial capital.

The names of major historical events (catastrophes, exhibitions, wars, treaties, councils etc.) should use initial capitals: ‘the Great Famine,’ ‘the First World War,’ ‘the Gunpowder Plot,’ ‘the Council of Nicaea,’ ‘the Reformation’ and ‘the Crucifixion,’ with the initial capitals distinguishing the last two, as instructive examples, from the common and more generic terms ‘reformation’ and ‘crucifixion.’ The names of people and languages and the adjectives derived from them are similarly capitalised in English – ‘Canadians,’ ‘a Torontonian,’ ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Irish’ – but with considerably inconsistency: ‘Americanise’ is the standard form, for instance, but so is ‘anglicise,’ and ‘Roman’ is capitalised when referring to numerals, but not when referring to ‘roman font’ (the capital in such cases sometimes indicates a closer relationship with the originating nationality, but not always, as ‘Roman’ versus ‘roman’ in my last example demonstrates). The same is the case with words derived from personal names such as ‘Chaucerian,’ ‘Shakespearean’ or ‘Platonic,’ with capitalisation used frequently but not always and generally varying the meaning when it is: the adjective in ‘a Platonic dialogue’ means something very different from that in ‘platonic love.’ Scientific units derived from names do not use initial capitals – ‘a watt’ and ‘a joule’ – but compound terms for scientific laws, tests and names generally retain the initial capital(s) on the personal name part: ‘the Mann–Whitney test,’ ‘Murphy’s law’ and ‘Halley’s comet.’ In biological nomenclature, the Latin names of genera bear an initial capital, but species names do not, as in Thymus vulgaris (thyme).

Specific building names are capitalised – ‘the Eiffel Tower’ and ‘the Dominion Building’ – but not generic ones: ‘the tower’ and ‘a skyscraper.’ Similarly, ‘the ship’ and ‘an airplane’ do not use capitals, but the names of ships and planes should appear with initial capitals – ‘the Spirit of St Louis,’ ‘a Cessna Skyhawk’ and ‘the Golden Hinde’ (as these examples show, the individual names of ships and planes use italic font as well, on which see Section 6.2.2 below). Names including a number also tend to be capitalised (e.g., ‘Scene 2,’ ‘Flight 423’ and ‘Route 66’) and cross references can be as well, as those in this document are with an initial capital on ‘Chapter’ and ‘Section,’ or they can appear in block capitals (as in ‘CHAPTER 3’). Block capitals of this sort can be used for a number of other purposes as well: to emphasise words or short phrases, though this should be done very selectively to avoid overuse; to highlight one or more words at the beginning of chapters and, more rarely, sections; to transcribe material that is itself entirely in capitals (from Roman inscriptions or coins, for instance); to record manuscript sigla (London, British Library MS Royal 6.C.XIV) and other information including Roman numerals; and to indicate character names in passages quoted from a play or author surnames in a bibliography or reference list, in which case author–date parenthetical references are occasionally set in block capitals to match the format of the list.

A useful approach for avoiding the overuse of capitalisation and thus allowing it to achieve its purpose effectively is to use a lowercase initial letter instead when referring back to a compound proper name that was introduced in initial capitals: ‘the University of Toronto,’ for instance, might be referred to in the next sentence as ‘the university,’ ‘the Second World War’ in the next paragraph as ‘the war’ and ‘the Great Famine’ as ‘the famine’ in subsequent mentions. As long as there is no potential for ambiguity and this approach does not conflict with any guidelines you need to follow, it can work well, but if, for instance, two wars or two famines are discussed, it is best to use the full name in each instance for clarity or to devise a system of abbreviation that distinguishes the two (see Section 6.3 below). Generally speaking, any system of capitalisation devised for such purposes that is not cumbersome and serves to emphasise the words and concepts requiring emphasis is acceptable as long as it is used both logically and consistently throughout a thesis.

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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