Should defined terms begin with a capital letter?

14 December 2018

Putting a capital letter at the beginning of a term that has been defined in a document is a technique sometimes used to identify the term throughout a document. But does this technique help or hinder the reader?

Capital letters have two main roles:

  • to show the beginning of a sentence
  • to show proper nouns.

A proper noun is a name that identifies a particular person, place, or thing (e.g. Australia, Sydney, Monday, Samantha). Names of organisations and trade names are also proper nouns. In written English, it is correct to begin a proper noun with a capital letter.

Placing a capital letter at the beginning of a term that has been defined in the document is a common practice in some business communications such as policies and other formal documents. Some people do say they find it helpful to have an initial capital on a defined term as it gives them a clue that they can check the meaning in the list of definitions. But rather than helping communication, this practice may actually hinder the reading and writing process.  

Too many initial capitals are distracting

Capital letters change the ‘shape’ of words. When used too often, they can hamper reading flow as the eye needs to continually move up and down. Overuse of initial capitals can make the page visually unattractive and discourage the reader. Too many capitals can also distract and irritate the reader.

 The reader may not be familiar with the practice

Although a proper noun must begin with a capital letter, not all proper nouns will be defined terms. This can cause confusion for the reader, especially if they are not familiar with the practice of giving defined terms an initial capital. For example, a reader is more likely to think a Designated Employee is a position title (proper noun) than a defined term. If you do use the practice of defined terms, you would need to explain this at the beginning of the document.

The writing process will take longer

To be effective, care needs to be taken by everyone involved in the document drafting process to ensure every word in the list of definitions has an initial capital throughout the document. This consistency can be difficult to maintain, particularly for policies that are regularly updated. If the initial capitals are not applied consistently, any benefit will be lost.

When deciding whether to put a capital at the beginning of a defined term, you need to consider the benefits to the reader versus the potential pitfalls, including the time it takes to apply the technique correctly and consistently.

For help writing clear and concise policies and reports, contact Concise Writing Consultancy today on 02 9238 6638

Return to Blog