All in the family

Lesson: when to capitalize titles for family members

Today we’re going to talk about moms and dads and aunts and cousins and step-uncles and so on—all the people in your family—and whether to capitalize the first letter in the words we call them (the nice names like “sister” not like “jerkface”).

Let’s take a look at this sentence:

Hey, mom, are the cookies ready yet?

So, should the first M in mom be capitalized? The answer is yes.

Here’s another example:

I asked my mom if the cookies were ready.

Should this M in mom be capitalized? The answer is no.

Here’s the easy-to-understand rule: When you can replace mom (or aunt, sister, grandma, whatever) with the person’s real name and have the sentence still make sense, then you capitalize the first letter. If you can’t replace mom with the person’s real name and have the sentence still make sense, then it is not capitalized.

Let’s look at the sentences again, replacing mom with the name Phyllis.

Hey, Phyllis, are the cookies ready yet?
I asked my Phyllis if the cookies were ready.

Do you see how the second sentence doesn’t make sense when we replace mom with Phyllis?

Tip: Usually you will see someone’s relationship to the person in question in instances when the first letter shouldn’t be capitalized. Examples: her brother, my uncle, his friend’s step-sister.

Let’s look at two more sentences to make sure we understand this. Here, I will capitalize (or not) as is correct.

I don’t think, Dad, that you will ever understand how snakes slither.
My dad won’t ever understand how snakes slither.

Do you think you understand? Test your knowledge with this quiz. Look at the word in parentheses and decide if it should be capitalized. The answers are at the bottom.

  1. Yo, (sister), who gave you that black eye?
  2. I read on the bathroom wall that I should call your (brother) for a good time.
  3. Sometimes I think, (mom), that you are too obsessed with physics.
  4. Her (uncle) picks his nose.
  5. Did you read the blog post about princesses that my (cousin) wrote?
  6. I thought I saw you, (grandma), walk out of martial arts class.

1. Sister 2. brother 3. Mom 4. uncle 5. cousin 6. Grandma

11 thoughts on “All in the family

  1. I’m not sure I agree with this. Maybe it’s an American usage thing?

    Proper nouns get capitals, everyday nouns don’t. Are you saying mom (or mum for English speakers outside of North America) becomes a proper noun in some circumstances?

    Think of your toaster, it’s an everyday noun.

    Do you ever say: “Hey, Toaster, is my toast ready?”


    • I’m not an expert about usage in the UK and elsewhere, but in the US, these words that refer to people are capitalized. Take, for instance, a doctor.

      Excuse me, Doctor, that’s a big needle.
      I told my doctor that the needle was big.


      • So you capitalise job titles? That’s a no-no in the UK although some publications do it because of pressure from people who think THEIR job title should be capitalised.

        Like I said, proper nouns take capitals, other nouns don’t. At least in the UK.


        • Job titles would be capitalized (I’m going to use a “z” because I happen to be on the other side of the pond.) if used instead of a person’s name. Obviously, there are only a few circumstances where this would happen. It’s unlikely, for instance, that one would refer to a janitor as “Hey Janitor,” instead of the person’s name. If the name is stated and then the person’s title, then the title would not be capitalized. Example: James, the janitor, cleaned the doorknob.


          • Yes, that’s definitely a different style from any of the UK, NZ or Australian papers I worked on. Job descriptions aren’t usually capitalised, but ranks and title’s are when used in conjunction with a name. So it would be President Obama, but the president and Queen Elizabeth, but the queen. God is always capitalised because it’s a proper name.

            Office holders are not capitalised, so it’s prime minister Cameron.

            I don’t think it’s standard across all US papers to use capitals, but I could be wrong on that and just miss it when I see it.


  2. Great post! I aced the quiz, although #1 gave me pause. The reason for this is while I’ve alway capitalize those words which are temporary nicknames (Buddy, Boy, Chica), but increasingly I see them uncapitalized.

    Bill’s comment above brings up another interesting point. I’ve always capitalized president (also, senator, congressman/woman) when preceding the person’s name (e.g., President Obama), but not when referring to ‘the president.’ However, shouldn’t that be capitalized as there is only ONE president (per country, anyway), making it a proper noun?

    The Krauts cut to the chase by capitalizing all nouns.


  3. Associated Press style and The Chicago Manual of Style both say that when a title (such as “president”) stands on its own (such as in “the president”) it should not be capitalized. Thanks for your comment.


  4. Pingback: Common Writing Mistakes: Grammar Cheat Sheet for Bloggers | Inspired By Family Magazine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s