[I am unable to write "Hello, English scholars" as the first line without it deleting it.]

There is obvious contention between style guides on the subject of capitalizing personal titles when they are used in the place of a name, such as "I heard from the Minister of Justice today". The Canadian Style Writing Guide advises this usage., and so does the British MHRA.

Assuming that this convention is being accepted, and such proper titles are capitalized in this way, I am still curious about substituting names with non-formal common titles, such as "The assistant gave it to us today". The position of assistant does not bestow a title, and so it would be lowercase preceding the name; however, in this hypothetical context, it is understood that there is only one assistant. The question is whether to capitalize "assistant" when it is being used as a name substitute, or leave it as lowercase.

For reference, all of these are correct in my setting:

• I bumped into the Professor yesterday. [Referencing a single professor, in substitute of their name.]

• You will be introduced to a professor soon. [Lowercase because of the general reference to "a" professor.]

• Hello, class. My name is Professor James. [Capitalized because it is used as a title with the name.]

• His assistant is named Julie. ["Assistant" is lowercase because of the possessive.] (EDIT: Bad example. Here's a replacement: "I'll go ask our assistant."

• Hey, Assistant! Come over here [Capitalized because of the direct address.]

I'm hoping we might have some useful discussion on this, pulling reasons for the varying styles from guides. I am constructing a short document for my workplace to serve as a style guide on a few contentious grammar/mechanics points.

Note: Mods, please don't mark this as a duplicate. There is no other substantive post with this specific question. :)

  • When does style guidance become authoritative? Is there a style guide guide? Jiskha.com advises: 'The word doctor is capitalized if you are addressing the doctor as such, as in "Hello Doctor." ' One doubts that they'd treat professors, ministers or bishops differently. May 24, 2018 at 19:14
  • This source implies then that it is lowercase in all other instances? The foundation that I'm running on capitalizes not just direct addresses with titles, but also general name substitutions when the reference is clear, and when the substitution is an actual title. "The Archbishop is arriving shortly" would be an example. It is not his name, nor a direct address, but it is capitalized. It's with this groundwork that I'm trying to dig into to see when and if non-official titles can be used in this way. I'm looking to clarify the grey line. Thanks for extra source! May 24, 2018 at 19:25
  • You think there's a single grey line? Where did you get that idea from? // Googling "the archbishop will arrive" which obviously is not direct address but is specific doesn't give many hits, but the ratio A : a is about 9 : 1. Obviously, "the secretary will arrive" will not be directly comparable as being nowhere near as specific. May 24, 2018 at 19:43
  • There is a single grey line that I am tacking at the moment, but of course there are countless ones elsewhere, even in the same general subject. May 24, 2018 at 19:48
  • I'm saying that different style gurus will [almost certainly] stipulate different boundaries on the one issue. May 24, 2018 at 19:49

3 Answers 3


The 2017 Associated Press Stylebook includes this entry for academic titles:

"Capitalize and spell out formal titles such as chancellor, chairman, etc., when they precede a name. Lowercase elsewhere. Lowercase modifiers such as department in department Chairman Jerome Wiesner."

If you were to use AP style, assistant would be lowercase in the example your question asks about. I'm sure other resources and guides will offer conflicting advice.

  • Thanks for the comment. Well there's one more style book down. AP says no. The Canadian Style and the MHRA do not properly touch on this subject, unfortunately. May 24, 2018 at 18:57
  • Really? Did anyone notice how that citation suggested capitalising terms without capitals? Could everyone please recognise first that "academic" titles are not "personal” titles, nor anything like them? “Academic” titles include, eg, “professor” or “lecturer” while “personal” titles include “Mr” or “Mrs”. Is that obvious, or not? The most basic misconception there - as so clearly explained by Richard Burton’s character in The Sandpiper - is that “Reverend” is not a title, but an adjective which qualifies a title and there are many others. Sorry; job despriptions are not titles. May 26, 2018 at 22:40

What I am not seeing addressed, in most search results articles or styleguides, is how you would write the word professor in conversations where one was speaking directly to him or her, excluding the name. In the following example,

"I assume so, Professor," he responded.

Should this be capitalized or lower-cased?

Update: I found this. See “To address someone” section in this article: https://editorsmanual.com/articles/academic-ranks-capitalization/

The above shows we should capitalize it in the situation I had described.

  • 1
    Hi Brenda, welcome. Please include the relevant information from the website you've linked. Links are subject to rot, and the goal is for an answer to be as complete as possible in itself.
    – livresque
    Feb 18 at 2:38

There are two and a half pretty-well unimpeachable sources for answers to this kind of Question: as specific references 1) Debrett's Correct Form and less obviously 2) a giant, desktop edition of Webster’s Dictionary; for examples alone, with less scope and no explanation, 2 1/2) Burke’s Peerage. Possibly, Whos Who could also help.

I suggest there is no instance above of any “personal title”. Everything cited seems to be a job description.

For example “Professor” is not a personal title, and using “The Professor” in place of “Professor Name” is not really a substitute; it’s an abbreviation and if the difference didn’t matter, why would you be asking?

Who doubts that, please explain even the clear differences, let alone the nuances among Professor Tommy Atkins, Professor Sir Tommy Atkins, Professor Lord Atkins and half a dozen other varieties… all of which have exactly the same meaning in every variant of English; the only “problem” being that most speakers of most varieties happen not to be familiar with terms used in British English every day.

Could you first look through, say, six style guides and then ask about what the consensus leaves unclear?

Could you start by reconsidering what you think "Personal Titles" mean and then how they substitute for names, including why you put capitals even on Personal Titles, let alone Substitutes or Names? Which style guide or teacher ever suggested you could get away with, never mind should try to do that?

  • 1
    The Associated Press Stylebook as well as the Chicago Manual state that using titles in the place of names, such as the professor example that I gave, is not acceptable. The MHRA Style Guide and the Canadian Style Writing Guide state the very opposite. I did do my research. The Oxford University style guide sides with the MHRA and CSWG for capitalizing these instances when used in place of a name. The Oxford guide even goes as far as to say that "tutor" is a personal academic title (I do not agree with this). "Professor" is widely simultameously deemed a proper and professional title. May 27, 2018 at 17:02
  • Did you notice, all of those are style guides? Neither my nor your opinion matters in that context. Choose a style guide and follow it, until it lets you down… which it prolly will, though that’s not guaranteed. If you can't find a guide that suits your personal preferences, what do you see as your options, please? I think they are to define your own style from the top of your head, or from reference to trusted sources… if you think there’s a third way, please explain that. Getting back to the OQ would you mind either justifying or forgetting about your capitalisation? May 30, 2018 at 22:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.