Capitalization: What attorneys need to know
Attorneys are prone to capitalization errors and often unsure whether to capitalize point headings and the word “court.” This post will help.
An attorney who has reviewed Elegant Legal Writing suggested I write a post about capitalization. Capitalization rules are tricky, and lawyers are especially prone to capitalization mistakes because of quirks in legal writing — the ubiquity of defined terms, the common practice of using ALL CAPS or Initial Caps in headings, and the confusing rules of etiquette requiring attorneys to capitalize “court” in some instances but not others.
This post reviews key capitalization rules and addresses how to capitalize headings and the word “court.” Even I, someone who has written a book about legal prose, find these rules confusing and tedious — but that’s all the more reason to find efficient ways to teach them.
Proper capitalization makes text easier to read.
English uses the Latin alphabet. Latin was once written in all uppercase letters, as shown in this inscription:
Lowercase letters were eventually developed because text that combines uppercase and lowercase letters is easier to read — especially when writers follow consistent capitalization conventions. Using a capital letter should signal something significant, such as the beginning of a sentence or the presence of a proper noun or defined term.
Early modern English authors used seemingly arbitrary capitalization practices, as shown in this passage from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan:
To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice. Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two Cardinall vertues.1
Today, thankfully, capitalization is more standardized. Contemporary writers who use capital letters arbitrarily risk confusing readers.
Use lowercase unless you have a reason to do otherwise.
English words should be lowercased by default unless a respected style guide says to capitalize them.2 The most common reasons to capitalize initial letters are to begin a sentence or show that a word is a proper noun (name) or defined term. Text that follows these standard practices is said to be written in sentence case (as opposed to title case, all caps, or initial caps).3 For example, the two headings above are written in sentence case.
Never use ALL CAPS or Initial Caps in headings or elsewhere.
Text written in ALL CAPS has always been an illegible eyesore, but it’s also a breach of decorum in the internet age since it conventionally signifies shouting. Only acronyms should be written in all caps.
If you need to artificially emphasize text, use italics or bold (never underlining).4
Neither ALL CAPS nor Initial Caps are acceptable for headings in legal briefs or other documents, either. Sentence case is almost always the best choice, even for headings. Document titles should be in title case (described below). You can also use title case for “zero-level” headings in a document outline; these include, in a legal brief, the headings for court-mandated sections like “Corporate Disclosure Statement,” “Interest of Amicus Curiae,” “Statement of the Case,” and so on.
You could also use title case for first-level headings that aren’t sentences (such as “Statement of Facts”), but that’s usually unnecessary. Write persuasive, full-sentence point headings in sentence case whenever you can. When a full-sentence heading wouldn’t be appropriate, use one-word headings like “Introduction,” “Facts,” “Argument,” and “Conclusion.'”
Emphasis and point headings are discussed in greater depth in my book Elegant Legal Writing, which contains chapters on organization and document design.
Understand the rules of title case.
Titles, news headlines, and multi-word proper nouns use title case. The initial-caps style capitalizes the first letter of every word; in title case, by contrast, function words like of are lowercased unless they are the first or last words of the title. Here’s an example:
I saw The Merchant of Venice at the Shakespeare Theater.
The first the is capitalized in that sentence because although it’s a function word, it’s the first word in the play’s title. By contrast, the function word of in the play’s title is lowercase. The second the (in “the Shakespeare Theater”) is lowercase even if it’s part of the name because a mid-sentence the is not capitalized in running text.
Function words that are lowercased in titles include articles (a, an, the); coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, not, or); the to in infinitives (e.g., “To Have and To Hold”); and prepositions when used as prepositions (e.g., “The Cow Jumped over the Moon”) rather than as adverbials (e.g., “Come Over Here”).
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Check your knowledge of common capitalization norms by reviewing these examples.
Here is a table with examples showing some standard rules and norms. If any rules are unfamiliar, you can look them up in one of the sources listed at the end of this post. Another quick option, if accuracy isn’t paramount, is to ask a good AI program (such as ChatGPT or Claude) a prompt like this:
What capitalization rules or norms do these examples show? “[Paste in example text].”
Style guides often differ on tricky capitalization issues, but the examples below are consistent with widespread usage and the recommendations of the manuals I checked. When in doubt, and for situations not shown in these examples, check The Redbook and the Chicago Manual of Style.
(Here is a reference for the footnote in row three of the table.5)
Don’t worry if you find some of these rules arbitrary and hard to follow; they are! The most important point is to avoid arbitrarily capitalizing mid-sentence words other than defined terms and proper nouns. When in doubt, use lowercase letters.
If you’re an attorney, learn when to capitalize “court.”
The word “court,” like any other common noun, should normally be lowercased. Capitalize it only when you’re referring to either (1) the court where you’re currently litigating, (2) the highest court in the jurisdiction where you’re currently litigating, or (3) the U.S. Supreme Court.
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago 17th ed. 2017)
- R.W. Burchfield (ed.), The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford 3d ed. 1996)
- Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual of Legal Style (West 4th ed. 2018)
- Mark Lester and Larry Beason, The McGraw-Hill Education Handbook of English Grammar and Usage (McGraw-Hill 3d ed. 2019)
- Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English (McGraw-Hill 2004)
Ryan McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. For more writing tips, subscribe to the Elegant Legal Writing newsletter and follow Ryan on LinkedIn. McCarl’s book is now available on Amazon.
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See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, online at Project Gutenberg. This passage appears in Chapter XIII, soon after Hobbes’ famous claim that before governments existed, the “life of man” was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The Chicago Manual of Style uses the term “sentence-style capitalization” for sentence case and “headline-style capitalization” for title case. See The Chicago Manual of Style §§ 8.158–8.159 (17th ed. 2017).
See Ryan McCarl, Elegant Legal Writing 166, 173–74 (Univ. Cal. Press 2024). Elegant Legal Writing contains a chapter on document design and typography.
See Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English 24 (McGraw-Hill 2004) (“As a general rule, if what modifies a title isn’t capitalized, the title isn’t eligible for capitalization either.”).