On Capitalizing "Mom and "Dad"--and "Great-Aunt Betty"
by Tina Blue
February 10, 2001
If you clicked on this article hoping for advice on capitalizing on Mom and Dad, then you need to have both your glasses and your moral compass checked. (Tsk. Tsk. Some people.)
What I want to address in this article is the question of when to capitalize such kinship terms as mom, dad, mother, father, grandma, aunt, etc. I will also examine the different, yet related, issue of when to capitalize words like president, attorney general, lieutenant, professor, etc.
Oddly enough, the topic for this article came to me as a result of a seemingly unrelated question posed by Jean Levack* :
I have a question that I have tried to find the answer to all day but it is eluding me. If you have a minute, could you tell me how to write "ex president Bill Clinton"? Do I capitalize the "E" in "ex"? Also, do I use a hyphen?
The answer to her question is that you could say either "former president Clinton" or "ex-president Clinton." By indirect routes, this point led me to the question about capitalization that is the primary focus of this article. Why "ex-president Clinton" rather than "ex-President Clinton," when we would, after all, have written "President Clinton" prior to January 20? It isn't that you lose your right to a capital letter when you vacate your office. It's that you only get the capital letter when you are being referred to by the title that goes with the office.
If, as a sign of respect, someone addresses or refers to the former president as "President Clinton," then the capital letter would be in order: "On Tuesday, March 6, President Reagan became only the third ex-president to reach the age of ninety after leaving office."
However, there is no such office as "ex-president," so no title "ex-President" can be attached to that nonexistent office. In fact, if there were such an office, then it would be written as "Ex-President," since the "ex" would be part of the actual title, just as "vice" is in "Vice-President." (But it's not, there isn't, so don't worry about it.) The point is that offices and ranks are capitalized when they are used as titles for referring to or addressing the holders of such ranks or offices: President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft, General Powell, Secretary of State Powell. But when referring merely to the office, we would not capitalize the word:
~General Colin Powell has replaced Madeline Albright as secretary of state.
~George W. Bush was elected president in a hotly contested race.
~John Ashcroft was recently confirmed as attorney general.
Now to the different, but still related, question of how to treat kinship terms.
~Mom told Dad in no uncertain terms that Aunt Betty would be living with us until she found another apartment.
What about "her aunt Betty"? Well, that depends--if you mean "Aunt" as part of Betty's "name," then write "her Aunt Betty"; but if you mean it the same way you'd say "her sister Betty," then don't capitalize the word. But what about "great-aunt"? If the word is being used as part of Betty's name, do you write "Great-aunt" or "Great-Aunt"? "Great-Aunt" would be preferred for a number of reasons. First of all, "Great-Aunt Betty" is by far a more common form than "Great-aunt Betty."
Secondly, "aunt" is the more important of the two elements in the "title," so it would seem anomalous not to capitalize it while capitalizing "great," which is, after all, a mere modifier of "aunt."
And finally, the general rule is that in a capitalized hyphenated compound word, both words are normally capitalized if they are of approximately equal significance. In the title "Great-Aunt," "great" needs to be capitalized as the first word of the title anyway, and "aunt" is of at least equal significance, or as I have just claimed, even more significance, so naturally "aunt" must also be capitalized. Now, just think how prepared you are to deal with the situation when your mother's great-aunt Betty becomes the ex-president. You'll be able to say to your mom's great-aunt, "Great-Aunt Betty, even though you are no longer in office, you will always be President Great-Aunt Betty to us, won't she, Mom?"
*If you click on Jean's name, you will land at her website, which I highly recommend. (She also co-hosts "North Words," a website for emerging Canadian writers, which you might like to check out.)