Declare independence from misused capitals!

Now that Flag Day is over and we are approaching the Fourth of July, the Scribe would like to pause to consider the meaning of this uniquely American holiday.  Independence Day means something different to everyone, including parades, fireworks, barbecues, baseball and beer.  But for the Scribe, Independence Day is, more than anything, a time to reflect on the mysteries of capitalization.

What was Thomas Jefferson thinking when he wrote this?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What’s with all those capitalized words?  Was Jefferson illiterate?

The answer, of course, is that the conventions governing capitalization have changed over time.  But unfortunately, some writers—and especially lawyers—still write as though it were 1776, randomly capitalizing words for no reason at all, as though they were channeling their own inner Benjamin Franklin.  But modern practice favors the frugal use of capitals.

Granted, some words require capitalization.  Here are some basic rules:

Capitalize proper names, e.g.,

  • Names of people (Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax);
  • Geographical names (Boston, Vermont, Crater Lake, France);
  • Institutions (University of Oregon, Washington Court of Appeals; United States Supreme Court);
  • Brand names (Nike, Motorola, Ford);
  • Holidays (Independence Day, New Year’s Day);
  • Awesome baseball teams (Dodgers, Red Sox);
  • Evil baseball teams (The Yankees).

Capitalize complete official titles of an officer or agency of the state (but don’t capitalize abbreviated titles).  Here are examples:

Capitalize:                                         Do not capitalize (exceptions noted):

1997 Legislative Assembly            the legislature

Attorney General                               the Attorney General (exception)

City of Eugene                                     the city

Court of Appeals                                the court

Department of Revenue                  the department

Governor McCall                                the Governor (exception)

House of Representatives              the House (exception)

Judge Jones                                           the judge

Oregon Court of Appeals                 the court

Oregon Supreme Court                    the Court (exception)

Secretary of State                               the secretary

Representative DeFazio                   the representative

Senate                                                      the Senate (exception)

Senator Smith                                       the senator

State of Oregon                                    the state

United States Supreme Court        the Court (exception)

Capitalize months and days of the week (but not seasons of the year), e.g.,

  • Stephen filed the motion on Wednesday, April 9, 2014.
  • Lee invaded Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863.
  • This case began in July 2013.

Capitalize the full title of a constitution, constitutional amendment, or clause of a constitution, e.g.,

  • Article I, section 9, of the Oregon Constitution (but “state constitution”)
  • First Amendment to the United States Constitution (but “federal constitution”)
  • Commerce Clause

(NOTE:  In the phrase “Oregon and United States constitutions,” don’t capitalize “constitutions,” because neither document’s full title is being used.)

Do not capitalize generic governmental terms, such as “federal” or “state,” as in “the state,” “state constitution,” and “federal constitution.”  But do capitalize those words when part of a full proper name, e.g.,

  • Federal Reserve Bank, State of Oregon

Also, don’t capitalize generic statutory names, such as “statute of frauds” and “statute of limitations,” or the words “chapter” or “section” (when referring to a specific chapter or section within a sentence), e.g.,

  • ORS chapter 10; Article I, section 9

In order to simplify things, here’s a general rule that will usually work: capitalization is not proper unless you’re referring to something specific—whether it’s a document, court, person, place, or whatever.  Thus,

  • The case is filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
  • The dispute is tied up in court.
  • Go tell it to the judge.
  • The case will be heard by Judge Litzenberger.
  • The trial is occurring at the courthouse.
  • The oral argument will take place on the second floor of the Pioneer Courthouse.

That is all for now ….

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