Protocol should trump grammar at all times

Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carilloo

A Tanzania-based member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, Mwita Chacha, recently related this very curious incident about the use of position titles:

“The other day I had a fierce argument with my Australian professor, who apparently felt demeaned that I wrote her title as ‘dean of faculty’ rather than as ‘Dean of Faculty’ in my letter asking for permission to attend the wedding ceremony of a relative in a distant town. She refused to approve the letter unless I modified the phrase. But confident that I hadn’t committed any grammar mistake, I wasn’t comfortable about the change she wanted. I challenged her to show me one grammar rule demanding that all job titles be capitalized. Reddened and shaking with rage, she crumpled the letter and tossed it in a dustbin. She forced me out of her office, shouting ‘I am not available to disputant students.’

“Do we really have to capitalize every job title in sight as my professor suggested?”

My reply to Mwita Chacha:
There are no hard-and-fast grammar rules for capitalizing the first letters of job titles, but in formal written communication, the astute communicator does it as a matter of elementary courtesy. In a well-established social or academic hierarchy, not to observe this formality will understandably be taken as a sign of disrespect—even contempt—for the holder of the position being addressed. I am therefore not surprised that your Australian professor didn’t take so kindly to the way you addressed her in your letter. In a very real sense, you demeaned her, so her outrage towards you, while probably excessive and unbecoming of her, wasn’t at all unexpected.

We need to clearly distinguish between a position and the formal job title for it. From a purely grammar standpoint, we can routinely use lower-case characters for the first letters of a position held by a particular person, as in “Joanna Smith is the dean of faculty of X University.” But in her formal capacity, protocol demands that she be formally addressed as follows: “Prof. Joanna Smith, PhD, Dean of Faculty, X University.” All the more so is capitalization of the first letters of the title required when it is used ahead of the name: “Dean of Faculty Joanna Smith.”

But do we really need to capitalize every job title in sight as your professor suggested? I don’t think so, but to get the results we want from the people we are formally writing to, we need to be sensitive to their temperament and emotional needs; if they are known to have big egos, we should capitalize their job title as a matter of course. To quibble about the grammatical correctness of doing so would really be counterproductive and—as you’ve found in your case—thoroughly disastrous. The lesson to be learned here is that in formal communication, whether written or spoken, etiquette and precedence should trump grammar correctness at all times.

As a cautionary note, though, I must hasten to add that the unbridled use of upper-case letters can be very distracting; indeed, unless needed or deserved, upper-case letters are telltale signs of exaggeration—the prose equivalent of screaming. So, as a general rule, use upper-case first letters only for the proper names of persons, places, companies and brands, and institutions as well as months and official names of holidays.

Most other uses of the upper case are best left to individual judgment, but any doubt on this should be resolved in favor of the lower case. The upper-case mania that we see in not a few résumés and job application letters particularly looks awful: “Served as Assistant Treasury Manager in an Acting Capacity for Three Months When My Superior was On Trial with the Sandiganbayan.” The tendency to do this often reflects deep insecurity and doubt on the intrinsic value of one’s accomplishments.

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  1. ” I am therefore not surprised that your Australian professor didn’t take so kindly to the way you addressed her in your letter.”

    The correct idiom is “TOO kindly.”