The Top 10 Capitalization Inconsistencies

Capitalization matters. If you capitalize a word in one location in a document, but forget to capitalize it in another then your writing looks sloppy. Even worse, inconsistent capitalization can alter the intended meaning. There's a difference between the Mayo (Clinic) and the mayo (sauce); and China (country) isn't the same as china (ceramics). So it's important to get capitalization right and to be consistent in how you use it.

We used PerfectIt, Intelligent Editing's add-in for MS Word that finds inconsistencies, to check 3000 randomly selected documents. PerfectIt provides a powerful way to check for inconsistent capitalization because it:

  • finds entire phrases in capitals, not just individual words
  • ignores headings and other locations where capital letters are needed
  • only alerts users to phrases that are both capitalized and lowercase in the same document.

The Top 10

Each document we tested was 1500 words or more and was downloaded from the internet using the search term "final report" to ensure that the selection was random. The results show that authors need to pay more attention to capitalization. A staggering 79% of documents published online came back with capitalization inconsistencies. The word that came up most often was 'Government'/'government' which was found in 6.4% of all documents. However, others also came up frequently. Here's the full Top 10.

Table 1: The 10 most inconsistently capitalized phrases
1 Government 6.4%
2 Committee 4.8%
3 State 4.0%
4 Report 3.7%
5 Board 3.1%
6 Section 2.8%
7 Project 2.7%
8 University 2.6%
9 Council 2.0%
10 Federal 2.0%

Location Matters

The interesting thing about each entry in the Top 10 is that it is possible (depending on preferred style) to use both the capitalized and lowercase versions in the same document and not be wrong. Moreover, the inconsistencies in the Top 10 suggest there is particular confusion about one rule, i.e. that the word is capitalized if it is used as a substitution for a proper name (the name of person / place / institution), but lowercase when it's used in a general / adjectival sense. A few examples help to explain:

  • The French Government may be referred to in capitals in 'the Government decided that...' However, the same document may use the phrase 'some government documents show...' The latter is in lowercase because it is used in a general sense, rather than as a substitute for the proper name.
  • A section of a report may be referred to in capitals, where 'Section' is used in the sense of a title, e.g. 'see Section 2.1'. However, it would be in lowercase in the sentence 'that section of the document showed'.

Software on its own provides us with no indication as to whether the instances in the Top 10 are right or wrong. So we did a manual check on the first ten documents in which both 'Government' and 'government' were found. Just one of the ten turned out to be correct. Every other document reviewed manually had at least one error. This suggests that a combination of software and careful checking is the best way to ensure documents are error-free.

What to Look For

The percentage of documents that have capitalization inconsistencies is incredible. One document we tested actually had over 100 different capitalization inconsistencies. Our results show that authors find consistent capitalization to be difficult, and suggest that teams of authors working together to produce a document find it nearly impossible.

Using PerfectIt on your documents is the best way to find and correct inconsistent capitalization. It's free to try, and in seconds it can scan every phrase in a document and compare to every other phrase. Moreover, PerfectIt guides authors through each possible error, allowing them to consider the context in each location and decide which form is correct. That same job can take a human being several hours. However, if you are proofreading manually, the Top 10 provides a useful guide of words / phrases to look for. It gives you a list of words to check, and it shows the importance of paying attention to proper names to ensure consistency throughout your documents.

Find consistency errors automatically with PerfectIt