Tech Writing Tip: Using Capitalization for Emphasis

A common issue that I come across as a technical editor is the overuse of capitalization (starting words with an uppercase letter) to emphasize general terms in a document. While there are certain cases where adding capitalization can be helpful, I often notice writers adding capitalization in situations where it really isn’t necessary.

The rules for capitalization can vary depending on your preferred style guide, so this blog post will only address adding capitalization for emphasis (as opposed to general rules for using capitalization, such as with names, proper nouns, titles, etc.). There may be cases where a writer will choose to capitalize words within a certain context in order to lend them more importance within a text. This can be an effective strategy if applied consistently, but only if care is taken not to overuse it. If too many words are capitalized, the added emphasis loses its effect – and too much capitalization for emphasis can become distracting and confusing for your reader.

When to Use Capitalization for Emphasis

In our ASCENT learning guides, we use capitalization to match and emphasize certain aspects of the software interface we are discussing. For example, we use capitalization for dialog box names, fields, commands, tooltips, and other specific areas so we can maintain continuity with the software while also drawing attention to these words so users can more easily connect them from our guides to the interface.

Let’s look at an example:

Incorrect: Other options in the Status Bar are related to Worksets and Design Options (advanced tools), as well as selection methods and Filters.

Correct: Other options in the Status Bar are related to worksets and design options (advanced tools), as well as selection methods and filters.

In this example, a number of terms have been unnecessarily capitalized in the incorrect sentence. Worksets, Design Options, and Filters are all general terms. They do not point to a specific place in the interface and are not indicating a specific tool or command, so they do not need to be capitalized. Status Bar, however, does point to a specific location in the interface, so we have chosen to keep the capitalization for that term in the correct sentence.

Other Options for Emphasizing Words

If you want to add emphasis to words in your writing without overusing capitalization, consider using different text styles instead, for example using bold or italic text to highlight an important term being defined in a paragraph. However, this should also be used sparingly – if too many terms are bolded, none of them will stand out!

Applying capitalization in the right places can be a useful tool in your writing, as long as it’s done judiciously. Overusing capitalization can lead to a text where too many words are emphasized, so the important ones are no longer as prominent. Take the time to think about what you’re trying to accomplish when adding capitalization to a document – and ask yourself if that capital letter is really needed after all.

If you're still unsure about how to use capitalization effectively,  ASCENT’s technical editing and writing team can help! Email us at tech.writing@ASCENTed.com.

About the Author

Breanne MacDonald

Technical Editor<br><br>Fueled by her meticulous nature, an eye for detail, and a love of books, Breanne has been an editor for over 10 years. She has been a technical editor with ASCENT since 2019, and outside the office she is the treasurer of the Editors’ Association of Canada. Breanne holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wilfrid Laurier University and a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University.

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