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When Do We Capitalize "President"?

by | November 1, 2012

Tanya when do we capitalize president banner

Is it "the president" or "the President"?

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.

Rule #1

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.

Rule #2

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.

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 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.

Lesson Plans on American Presidents

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

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Comments (74)

Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

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 to Comment
Bw tara

Tara Benwell(Author)

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 to Comment
Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

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. :)

Bw tara

Tara Benwell(Author)

What about movements? Should the 'civil rights movement' be capitalized?

Reply to Comment
Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

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

Bw tara

Tara Benwell(Author)

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 to Comment
Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

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 :)

Bw tara

Tara Benwell(Author)

Fantastic! Thank you, Tanya!

Reply to Comment
Bw tara

Tara Benwell(Author)

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 to Comment
Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

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 to Comment
Bw tara

Tara Benwell(Author)

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 to Comment
Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

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!

Bw tara

Tara Benwell(Author)

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 to Comment
Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

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

Bw tara

Tara Benwell(Author)

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 to Comment
Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

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! ;)

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