By Marian Mostovy
As a long-time editor of medical communications, I review—or view—content written by a host of people from across the pharma world. That includes everything from prescribing information to sales training materials to coupon offers. Here I share some perennially popular ways that people get confused about how and when to capitalize words.
1. Capping common nouns that make up an acronym
FDA, EMR, DME. In pharma writing, we constantly throw around acronyms. To avoid confusion, the general practice is to spell out a phrase first and follow it with its acronym in parentheses—for example, Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Then the acronym is used as shorthand for the rest of the communication. The problem is, many writers assume that since an acronym is in all caps, the title or phrase it stands for must also be capitalized. Not so.
The solution: When the phrase is a proper noun, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) example above, it takes initial caps. However, when an acronym stands for a phrase such as electronic medical record (EMR) or durable medical equipment (DME), it doesn’t warrant initial caps because these are not proper nouns.
2. Wishful Capping
Starting a word or group of words with caps because you think they are important (or want others to think so) is a temptation some of us can’t resist. I see this especially when department names or titles are used to begin a sentence: “The Product Marketing Managers will gather for a breakfast session at the annual company meeting.”
The solution: Only cap proper nouns. As important as those product marketing managers may be, the title is not a proper noun and should not be capped. If, however, a title comes before a person’s name, then using initial caps is the way to go, as in “Product Marketing Manager Tilda Swinton will speak at this year’s conference.”
3. ALL CAPS for emphasis
Capping all letters in a word for emphasis may seem like a good idea, but it’s the written equivalent of shaking your finger at the reader. Take the example: “When addressing a prescriber, NEVER compare your product to a competitor’s product.”
The solution: If you have the urge to go all caps, first consider if the word itself will get your message across. It would be hard for readers to miss the weight “never” conveys. If you still feel the need to crack the proverbial whip—or the word in question doesn’t express its weight organically—consider using italics for emphasis: “When addressing a prescriber, never compare your product to a competitor’s product.”
4. Assuming all diseases are proper names
To cap or not to cap? That is the question I often see writers struggle with when it comes to disease names. Should it be melanoma or Melanoma? Huntington’s disease, Huntington’s Disease, or huntington’s disease?
The solution: The names of most diseases—for example, diabetes and cancer—aren’t proper nouns and should never be capitalized, unless they are part of titles or the first word of a sentence. However, it’s important to recognize when a disease is named after the person who discovered it. In these cases, because it’s a proper noun, the person’s name must be capitalized but not the other descriptors like “disease,” “virus,” or “disorder.” For example:
- Physician George Huntington first described a progressive brain disorder in the late 1800s now known as Huntington’s disease.
- The Epstein-Barr virus was named after two professors who discovered it in 1906.
Finding the rules
I have a confession to make: some of the capitalization faux pas I describe here can be the upshot of style choices, not a disregard for or ignorance of punctuation rules. For instance, many writers cap professional titles or the names of company departments because their company style guides—which trump all other references—dictate they do so.
If you’re not familiar, company style guides typically tell you what references to follow (such as the AMA Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster) and provide usage rules that include exceptions to rules in those references along with topics not found elsewhere, like how to present the company’s brand names.
So where do I turn for the best or most accepted use of caps, you may be wondering. My first well of information is, of course, the Encompass and AMA style guides. My next go-to source for words and disease names is Merriam-Webster. When I can’t find the answer I’m looking for there—say for a phrase like “integrated delivery network”—I crowdsource by searching the internet and then taking a poll on how credible publications handle it most often. When all else fails, I use my gut and make sure I stick to my choice throughout the project.
That brings me to my overarching bit of advice when it comes to caps: be right if you can but be consistent always!
Marian Mostovy is a veteran writer and editor specializing in medical, pharmaceutical, and life sciences content. She has worked for leading companies such as McKesson, National Medical Care, and Philips as well as trade publications and medical communications agencies. Marian’s range covers B2B and B2C content for web pages, promotions, long-form articles, blogs, white papers, newsletters, and social media. As a writer/editor for Encompass, she acts as a gatekeeper for accurate, consistent, and user-friendly communications.