One grammar question I run across often is when to capitalize a name or title, particularly when it pertains to family relationships. For example, here’s something I commonly see: When my Mother came to visit last August, she stayed five months. No, it’s not common that the mother stayed five months. I’m talking about capitalizing the word mother in this situation. In the above example, the word mother should not be capitalized. But let’s change the sentence. When Mother came to visit last August, she stayed five months. Should you capitalize the word mother now? Yes, Virginia, you should.
But why, you ask? You should always capitalize words that show family relationships when used as titles or as substitutes for a person’s name. We do not capitalize words that show family relationships when they follow an article or a possessive noun or pronoun: our mother, your mother, my mother, the mother, a mother.
Let’s try another example from the family tree. Jan sent a letter to her uncle Bill. This is correct. So is Jan sent a letter to Uncle Bill. See the difference? Also correct is Jan’s uncle Bill received the letter.
Capitalizing a title can also cause confusion. I am awaiting your orders, Captain. And, I am awaiting your orders, Captain Reynolds. Both examples are correct because a title or an abbreviation of a title is capitalized when it comes before a person’s name or when it is a substitute for a person’s name. Also correct is Bill Reynolds is a captain in the army. Notice no caps here.
Now you, too, can capitalize on your newfound knowledge!
Do you have trouble knowing when to capitalize a word? Leave me a comment.