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Dealing With Formal and Descriptive Titles

Last week, I outlined some of the different rules for capping a composition title.

I noted that one wrinkle in applying sentence-style capitalization to the title of a book, poem, song, or other work of art was determining whether a person’s title was formal or descriptive. Formal titles are, in essence, proper nouns and are capped, both in the main text and in headlines and titles. Descriptive titles are common nouns and are lowercased.

So how do you distinguish a formal title from a descriptive one?

Formal Titles

The Associated Press Stylebook has a helpful definition for formal title: “a scope of authority, professional activity, or academic activity.”

I surveyed six style guides: The Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), The Associated Press Stylebook (AP), AMA Manual of Style (AMA), The Canadian Style, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th edition (APA), and New Hart’s Rules. All agree that what we’re calling formal would include civil, military, religious, professional (academic and corporate), and nobility titles.

The style guides also agree that formal titles are capped before a personal name (President Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth I), whether it’s in straight text or in a composition title that’s been capitalized sentence style.

Descriptive Titles

By comparison, a descriptive title is anything that’s not a formal title. Some style guides identify occupational titles, such as editor or engineer, as frequently used descriptive titles.

All the styles I surveyed advise lowercasing the title:

Jury finds writer John Smith guilty of plagiarism.

CMoS’s Exception

So far, so good. But what happens when a modifier comes before the formal title, as with former President Carter?

Most style books advise keeping the formal title capped. CMoS, however, makes a finer distinction.

CMoS says that if the formal title is modified, then you lowercase it: former president Carter. The reasoning is that president is no longer acting as a formal title. It’s now acting as part of a compound descriptive title: former president.

While the grammatical difference is there, few people notice it and it doesn’t greatly affect meaning. Which is likely why none of the other styles I looked at address the distinction.

Titles Without Names

So far, we’ve looked at titles that come before a name. What do you do with those titles that appear without the name, as with:

The editor/Editor made a lot of excellent changes to this document.

We shouldn’t have trouble with descriptive titles. Being common nouns, they’re universally lowercased. (Though wouldn’t it be nice if editor were considered a proper noun?)

Generally, formal titles are also lowercased:

Gail Winters was named senior vice president of widgets and gadgets at Fun Toys Co.

The president gave his speech from the Rose Garden.

Canadian Style, however, advises capping formal titles when they’re used as nonrestrictive (nonessential) appositives:

Gail Winters, Senior Vice President of Widgets and Gadgets, will accept the award for Fun Toys Co.

Canadian Style also advises capping the formal title when it’s used in place of the personal name:

The Senior Vice President introduced the Prime Minister at last night’s fundraiser.

Keeping the Rules Straight

Are you dizzy yet with the variations? Once you’ve decided whether you have a formal or descriptive title, the general rule is fairly simple:

Formal titles are capped before a personal name and lowercased otherwise.

Descriptive titles are lowercased.

You may want to record any variations in your style sheet, though, for easy reference. Need a style sheet? Head over to the Editors Resources and download our free template.

And, of course, if you follow a different style guide, you’ll want to check its rule.

A version of this article originally published on February 10, 2015, on

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