With the US elections coming up, the word “president” is on everyone’s minds, and it is a topic that will be covered in many classrooms. But is it president or President? What about when we say a president, the president, or President Obama? Textbooks don’t seem to cover these differences. Luckily, the style guides do! There are a few easy rules that apply to many such civil titles.
Use a capital when the title directly precedes the name.
- President Barack Obama
- Vice President Joe Biden
Note: The title “vice president” doesn’t include a hyphen, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style.
Don’t use a capital when the title doesn’t include a person’s name.
- The president of the United States
- The vice president of the US
Note: Exceptions occur when a political office chooses to capitalize a title in all positions, most likely for emphasis in promotional products.
Now, here’s where I get confused. It’s clear to me that a president shouldn’t be capitalized, because “a” doesn’t refer to one specific person, but when I write the president, I instinctively want to capitalize it. After all, with “the,” we’re clearly referring to just one person! So, if you’re like me, you’ll have to resist the urge to capitalize after “the,” too.
Some more examples:
- Abraham Lincoln was a great president.
- Lincoln was the president from 1861 to 1865.
- President Lincoln is remembered for his work to end slavery.
Don’t forget that these rules apply to most other civil titles, too, no matter what political system your country has.
- The prime minister of Canada
- Prime Minister Stephen Harper
- The mayor of Vancouver
- Mayor Gregor Robertson
For more examples of president/President, check out ESL Library’s beginner, low-intermediate, and high-intermediate – advanced lessons on Barack Obama. These lessons are also a great way to teach some of the vocabulary your students will need to be able to discuss the elections in class. ESL Library also has a section on American Presidents for you to try, including a NEW lesson plan on George W. Bush.
American friends, I hope the elections turn out the way you’re hoping for!
Source: The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, section 8.21.