Capital Letters and Non-Given Names

A guide to identifying when to use capital letters for non-given names and terms of endearment.

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What you call someone is, in effect, their name. People usually call me ‘David,’ but I’m also called things like ‘mate,’ ‘Chitty,’ and occasionally ‘Dave’ (please don’t call me ‘Dave’). Using non-given names like this is very common in writing. It’s also something that I often see people do wrong, from a technical standpoint. Most people know how to capitalise names. As my given name is ‘David,’ it has a capital D. Everyone knows that, but what about non-given names, like ‘mum,’ for example?

There is a fairly straightforward rule to follow regarding non-given names. When you are using a word as a name it should have a capital letter, like a name does.

“Hi Mum,” Jim said.

Jim is referring to his mother by name, but the name he is using is ‘Mum.’ That means, as it is a proper noun, it should have a capital M.

“Good morning,” Jim’s mum replied.

Here, ‘mum’ is a description, not a name. She is Jim’s mum, not named ‘Mum,’ so the m is lowercase, as in a regular noun.

“My mum’s name is Mum,” said Jim to his mum.

Jim is using the same word as both a proper noun (with a capital) and as a normal noun (without a capital), and the narrator is using ‘mum’ as a normal noun to identify the person Jim is talking to.

This rule doesn’t just apply to family members; if you’re using a word in place of a person’s name then it should have a capital letter, if it’s not a name (an identifier or description) then it shouldn’t.

As with all rules, however, there is an exception. The only time when you don’t have to capitalise a proper noun is when you’re using informal terms of endearment, otherwise known as ‘pet names’ (these are different from the name of a pet, which would be capitalised).

Personally, I capitalise informal terms of endearment, but not everyone does, and this is a debatable topic. As with most ambiguities within writing, it’s not imperative which one you pick, just that you are consistent with your choice.

”Hi, Honey,” said John.

“Howdy, sweetheart,” said Jane.

Either all of your terms of endearment have capitals, or none of them do; consistency is all that is important.

Surely it can’t be that simple, you ask? It is, and don’t call me Shirley.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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