When Do We Capitalize "President"?

Is it “the president” or “the President”?
ES-Library FlashcardsWith 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.

Examples:

  • 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.

Examples:

  • 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.

Confusion?

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.

Other titles:

Don’t forget that these rules apply to most other civil titles, too, no matter what political system your country has.

Examples:

  • 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 lesson on Barack Obama. That lesson is 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.

Lesson Plans on American Presidents

American friends, I hope the elections turn out the way you’re hoping for!

Tanya

Source: The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, section 8.21.

27 comments

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  1. ESL Library Staff says:

    May 5, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Here’s another question for you, Tanya. We are redesigning our Aboriginal Day lesson plan, and it refers to the governor general and the Governor General. We’ll need to fix that up! Since this is a Canadian holiday, I guess we need to decide whether or not we’re going with Canadian Press capitalization or not. The Canadian Press says to capitalize Governor General and Queen whenever you’re referring to a specific one. But we don’t do that according to our style guide, right? Can you clarify the capitalization of governor general with a few examples? Thanks!

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      May 5, 2014 at 6:04 pm

      Hi Tara,

      It gets tricky when different style guides disagree! Canadian Press and Associated Press (US) often do things differently from the Chicago Manual of Style, which we follow. CMS recommends using “the Queen” in British Commonwealth countries, but “the pope” and “the governor general” when they’re not followed by a name. We will stick to CMS’s rules, but for anyone else, the choice is yours—pick one way and stay consistent.

      Here are some examples of how we’d use “governor general”:
      – The governor general spoke at the conference today.
      – I’ll see what Governor General Michaëlle Jean has to say about it.

      Reply

  2. hawtin@bigpond.net.au'

    Phillip Hawtin says:

    Apr 4, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    Hi Tanya,
    Can you tell me whether president should be capitalized in the following:
    Queensland Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries Co-operative Limited president.
    Thanks,

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 4, 2014 at 11:23 pm

      Hi Phillip,

      No, you shouldn’t capitalize president in the example you’ve given.

      To make it clear, I’ll put it into two sentences, one that would require capitalization and one that wouldn’t:

      – Joe Smith is the Queensland Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries Co-operative Limited president.
      – Queensland Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries Co-operative Limited President Joe Smith spoke at the conference today.

      Reply

  3. Tara Benwell says:

    Jan 1, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    We always tell our students there are no stupid questions, but here’s a stupid follow up question. When referring to the First Lady, “the” is not capitalized, right?

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Jan 1, 2014 at 6:18 pm

      That video is hilarious!

      Yes, you’re correct. Unless it’s the first word of the sentence, “the” is never capitalized in running text, according to the Chicago Manual of Style. Check out these examples:

      I loved watching the First Lady dance on the Jimmy Fallon show last night.
      He owns every album by the Beatles.

      Reply

      • tanya@tbtk.net'

        Tanya says:

        Jan 1, 2014 at 6:23 pm

        And that definitely wasn’t a stupid question! (I tell my students the same thing—there are no stupid questions!) I only discovered this rule once I was an editor. In fact, I see many people write “an album by The Beatles” even though most style guides agree it should be “an album by the Beatles”. Most people have never heard of these style guidelines—I’m glad you’re asking about them here so we can share the answers with everyone! :)

        Reply

  4. Tara Benwell says:

    Jan 1, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    Wow! I’m glad I asked. That is so interesting. Thanks so much for sharing. And, if you didn’t see the First Lady dancing on the Jimmy Fallon special the other night, you’ll have to check it out.

    The Evolution of Mom Dancing: http://www.latenightwithjimmyfallon.com/video/evolution-of-mom-dancing-with-jimmy-fallon-and-michelle-obama/n33117/

    Reply

  5. Tara Benwell says:

    Jan 1, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Did I already ask you about the capitalization rules for the “first lady”? I assume it follows the same rules as president?

    First Lady Michelle Obama was a hoot on the Jimmy Fallon show.
    The first lady was a hoot on the Jimmy Fallon show.

    Am I right?

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Jan 1, 2014 at 6:04 pm

      Great question, Tara! The answer may surprise you!

      Unlike president and queen, which only get capitalized when directly preceding a proper name, First Lady is always capitalized! This is according to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. Your examples should be written like this:

      First Lady Michelle Obama was a hoot on the Jimmy Fallon show.
      The First Lady was a hoot on the Jimmy Fallon show.

      Why would this be? My guess is that the terms “president” and “queen” obviously refer to only one person, whereas “lady” is a more generic term. Or it could just be another quirk of the English language—there are plenty! ;)

      Reply

      • anna.sanderson@hotmail.co.uk'

        Anna says:

        Jun 6, 2014 at 6:12 pm

        Hi Tanya,

        Thanks for this post; it’s been really helpful! Just to clarify, would First Lady still be capitalized when using British English?

        Thanks,

        Anna.

        Reply

        • Tanya Trusler says:

          Jun 6, 2014 at 4:02 pm

          Happy to hear that, Anna! I’ve just checked the Oxford Dictionary Online, and they suggest capitalizing both words when referring to “the wife of the president of the US or other head of state”. So “First Lady” it is!

          Reply

  6. Tara Benwell says:

    Jun 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Hi Tanya,
    I’m working on the President Eisenhower lesson. Eisenhower’s first child died of scarlet fever. Or is it Scarlet Fever? When, if ever, do we capitalize diseases?

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Jun 6, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      Hi Tara,

      Names of diseases are lowercased unless there is a proper name involved (i.e., if a disease was named after a person). So it would be “scarlet fever” and “pneumonia”, but “Alzheimer disease” and “Down syndrome”. (Chicago Manual of Style, 8.143)

      Names of historical events are often capitalized, such as the Great Plague/the Plague. You could possibly make a case for scarlet fever being capitalized, but Chicago says “if in doubt, do not capitalize”, so my advice is to leave it lowercased. (Chicago Manual of Style, 8.74)

      Hope that helps!
      Tanya

      Reply

  7. Tara Benwell says:

    Feb 2, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    How about the US Embassy? I am writing about the US Embassy in Tehran for our new Jimmy Carter lesson plan. It’s capitalized, right?

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Feb 2, 2013 at 7:32 pm

      Neither the Chicago Manual of Style nor my set of dictionaries deal with the capitalization of “US Embassy”! Going by a google search and the embassy itself, I’d say it should be capitalized. It also follows the rule of lowercasing when dealing with the general case (e.g., I visited the embassy yesterday) and capitalizing for a specific name (e.g., He works for the US Embassy).

      Does anyone else have an opinion about this? We’d love to hear from you!

      Reply

  8. tanya@tbtk.net'

    Tanya says:

    Jan 1, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    Some people use a comma before Jr. and Sr., but at ESL-Library we follow the Chicago Manual of Style, so let’s remove the comma.

    Yeah, it’s great to figure out all of these rules together! Keep on asking…

    Reply

  9. Tara Benwell says:

    Jan 1, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    I just came back to this post again.I noticed that in our MLK lesson plan there is a comma before Jr. Is that right?

    It’s so handy having some of these rules right here on our blog. Let’s keep building!

    Reply

  10. Tara Benwell says:

    Jan 1, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Fantastic! Thank you, Tanya!

    Reply

  11. ESL Library Staff says:

    Jan 1, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Okay, here is another one that came up while writing a new lesson for ESL-Library’s American Presidents section.

    Should I write George H.W. Bush senior or Senior? Of course, I’m also wondering about junior. Thanks!

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Jan 1, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      Good question, Tara! The Chicago Manual of Style, section 6.47, recommends always capitalizing the abbreviation with no comma.

      So it would be “George H. W. Bush Sr.” Junior would be “Jr.” If you wanted to spell them out, you should capitalize them (“Senior” and “Junior”), but the spelled-out versions are often used as designations for other things, such as your year in university in the US.

      By the way, the Chicago Manual of Style, section 10.12, also recommends putting a space between initials, so H. W., not H.W. I have seen both ways used often, though.

      Hope that helps,
      Tanya :)

      Reply

  12. Tara Benwell says:

    Nov 11, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    What about movements? Should the “civil rights movement” be capitalized?

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Nov 11, 2012 at 6:50 pm

      Good question, Tara! We don’t need to capitalize “civil rights movement.” The Chicago Manual of Style, section 8.74, had this to say: “Names of many major historical events and programs are conventionally capitalized. Others, more recent or known by their generic descriptions, are usually lowercased. If in doubt, do not capitalize.” For example, “the War on Poverty” and “Prohibition” are capitalized, but “the baby boom” and “the civil rights movement” are not.

      I’m always able to look up specific instances like this, so if you or anyone else have questions, let me know!

      Tanya

      Reply

  13. Tara Benwell says:

    Nov 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    Thanks, Tanya! What about “the pope”? I know we would say Pope Benedict XVI, but I’m sure I’ve seen it written as the Pope when referring to the Roman Catholic pope. But today I’m writing about a different pope – the new pope of Egypt. I’m pretty sure I can refer to him as “Egypt’s new pope”. Is that right?

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Nov 11, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      Hi Tara,

      Yep, the same rules apply. You should say “Egypt’s new pope.” You would also refer to Pope Benedict XVI as “the pope” when you weren’t including his name directly after. I think some people choose to say “the Pope” as an exception, similar to the exception above with “the President,” for emphasis. :)

      Reply

  14. tanya@tbtk.net'

    Tanya says:

    Nov 11, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Wondering about titles of sovereigns and other rulers? The rules are similar. Here are some examples from the Chicago Manual of Style, section 8.22:

    – Queen Elizabeth; Elizabeth II; the queen (BUT, in a British Commonwealth context, the Queen)
    – King Abdullah II; the king of Jordan
    – Nero, emperor of Rome; the Roman emperor
    – King Hamad; Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifah, king of Bahrain

    The same goes for military titles as well (from section 8.23):

    – the general; General Grant

    Tanya :)

    Reply

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