To Cap or Not to Cap: Honorifics

Posted April 22, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Editing, Formatting Tips, Self-Editing, Writing

It’s a question of capitalization — and the number of Sirs I see capped in text drives me up the wall, scratching and clawing, snarling and biting. And, no, the capped Sir is not the only problem child. To be honest, it makes sense for the most part that most authors confuse some of them, but there are too many others that just make me want to tear my hair out!! So, a bit of background first.

An Honorific is…

First, an honorific is how people address one another. It’s the generic title, the title of a profession, of military rank, of inherited nobility or a ruler, a civil title, one of endearment, of a personal title.

Adjective: (of an office or position) given as a mark of respect, but having few or no duties.

  • Denoting a form of address showing high status, politeness, or respect
    • An honorific title for addressing women

Noun: a title or word implying or expressing high status, politeness, or respect

And my explanation still hasn’t helped, has it? Not to worry, the table below should take away the mystery.

While there are always exceptions, a good basic rule is:

  • Cap it if it’s a direct address.
  • Lowercase it if it is referring to someone.

Formatting Tips started…

…as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with words that should have been capitalized or italicized, in quotes or not, what should be spelled out and what can be abbreviated, proper styling for the Latin names of plants, the proper formatting and usage of titles and more in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this style tip with friends by tweeting it.

Definition: A term used to respect, acknowledge, address, or denigrate another person or being.

General Rule: The general rule is to use lowercase unless the person is being directly addressed. When speaking directly to a person, generally, you would use uppercase — and don’t forget the rule of the comma and the vocative case when it comes to direct address! This being English, there are, of course, exceptions.

When it comes to foreign honorifics, if the story is based in an English-speaking setting, then use English capitalization rules AND usage rules of the country for the honorifics.

Post Contents:

Capped lowercase
The Substantive Generic Title
sir, my lady, señor, mademoiselle, my lord, miss, etc.
At the beginning of a sentence or as part of a direct address: The default and when used without the person’s name:
Sir, will you excuse me?

Oh, Señor Ortega, I was thinking of you.

My lord, there is someone at the door for you.

Oh, Miss Smith, that is the loveliest dress.

Excuse me, sir, may I get by?

I was thinking of you, señor.

There is someone at the door for you, my lord.

Oh, miss, that is the loveliest dress.

BDSM Title
Rule: In the BDSM world, a submissive may be required to address her/his Domme/Dom as Sir (Jane Davitt).
Does Sir require me to…
Yes, Sir…
If Sir would prefer…

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Professional Titles
doctor, detective, lieutenant, maestro, professor, etc.
At the beginning of a sentence or as part of a direct address: When not addressing the person directly:
Excuse me, Professor, what was the homework again?

So, I have to have surgery, Doctor?

Detective, I can’t possibly sign this.

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Did you ask the professor about our homework?

The doctor says I have to have surgery.

The detective wants me to sign this.

Military Titles
Range from the highest ranks—The Adjutant General, the Inspector General, the Surgeon General, the Commander-in-Chief, the Admiral of the Navy, etc.—to the regular ranks—general, admiral, corporal, sergeant, etc.
Always cap the highest ranks before a name, after a name, or standing alone: When used without a name and NOT in direct address:
Supreme Allied Commander
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, etc.
lieutenant, etc.
Lower ranks are capped only before a name or in direct address:
General Adams
Lieutenant Steele
Examples: Examples:
Lieutenant, have the men shorten the spinnaker.

Did General McKinley sign off on this, sir?

Sergeant, you’ll have to take command of the battalion.

Have you spoken with the Supreme Allied Commander?

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Have the lieutenant tell the men to shorten the spinnaker.

Did the general sign off on this?

Get the sergeant to take command of the battalion.

Civil, Ruling, or Noble Titles
king, queen, or president; a lord or lady; the pope; emperor; and, the way in which any of these — and others — may be addressed directly.
Title is before the person’s name: When referring to the person
An exception is Turkish titles as the title follows the person’s name, e.g., Kemal Pasha

One-of-a-kind titles such as Pope (* AP Style differs)

It’s a general job description:

  • her majesty
    her royal highness
    my lord
  • general
  • pope (AP Style)
  • pasha, bey, hakim, sultan
  • prime minister, mayor, governor, councilman, kaiser, dictator, emperor, khan, president (see Professional Titles for abbreviation rules)
Directly to the person in speech/dialog:
Your Majesty
Your Royal Highness
Your Excellency
Your Honor
Your Grace, etc.

When in their country, e.g., in the British Commonwealth, always refer to the Queen

Examples: Examples:
Please, Your Majesty, if you would come this way?

But, Your Honor, I’m innocent!

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Her majesty insists it be done.

Yeah? Well, his honor can shove…

The prime minister believes this is important.

Terms of Endearment or Affection
The range for such terms is much wider and includes honey, sis, bro, bitch, sweetie, and more.
When used to begin a sentence: Used within a sentence:
Honey, can you take out the garbage?

Sis, you are lookin’ good!

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Can you take out the garbage, honey?

You are lookin’ good, sis!

If the term is used as a nickname consistently applied to ONE person. Then it would be capped just like a proper noun.

Lookin’ good, Big Daddy Kane.
Anybody seen Boy George?
Is Mama Cass singing tonight?
Personal, a.k.a. Family Titles
The most common of which are mom and dad, aunt and uncle, cousin.
Used in direct address or at the start of a sentence: When referring to someone:
When did you say you’d be home, Mom?

Wait a minute, Dad…

Hey, Mom, where are the sandwich fixings?

My mom said she’d be home at five.

Her dad won’t let her go.

Does anyone know where your mom is?

When is his mother getting home?

When the title is used as a name:
When is Mother getting home?

Do you think Father will help with my class project?

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3 responses to “To Cap or Not to Cap: Honorifics

  1. True, but in BDSM stories, ‘sir’ is often ‘Sir’ as a mark of respect toward a Dom. So where it’d be correct for a butler to say, “Good morning, sir,” a sub would say, “Good morning, Sir.”

    All the publishing style guides I’ve seen allow for this usage in this particular case. Not sure if it’s adopted across the board, of course.

    • Very true. And I’ve added that particular change to the entry on honorifics in my website with “if the honorific is used as a specific name or nickname for a particular person”. Hope you don’t mind that I’ve credited it to you…