As the 2016 election for the next president of the United States begins to really gear up, you may be asking yourself some questions: Why does the election process take so long? How does Donald Trump get his hair to look the exact same way every single day? And why is Jeb Bush sometimes referred to as Governor Bush and sometimes referred to as the former governor of Florida? Why is governor capitalized sometimes but not all the time?
I’m so glad you asked that! Capitalization rules in English can be a bit difficult to wrap your mind around because English tends to capitalize more types of words than other languages. Months, for example, and days of the week start with capital letters in English, even though they don’t in other languages. Another example of words not capitalized in other languages is the word “English” itself. If you are describing another country or talking about its language (French, German, Japanese, etc.), the adjective form of the country is always capitalized.
But the issue of Governor Bush is a little more complicated than that. It comes down to the difference between common nouns and proper nouns. Common nouns encompass all of your basic people, places, things, and ideas: sister, for example, or building. When you start to get more specific, however, you run into the issue of capitalization and proper nouns. The word “sister” is generic even if you use the possessive pronoun “my” before it. However, if you refer to your sister by her specific name, then you can start capitalizing. If you say that there are many buildings in Washington D.C., you don’t need to capitalize the word “buildings.” But if you are referring specifically to the building where the president lives, then you must call it the White House with a capital W and a capital H.
In the case of our current crop of presidential candidates, their titles are both common and proper nouns depending on their use. If the title refers to them specifically, then it is capitalized. If it’s referring to the job itself, then it isn’t capitalized. Here are some examples:
Governor Jeb Bush led the state of Florida from 1998 to 2007. A governor is the leading politician of a particular state. There is one other governor currently running for president: Governor John Kasich of Ohio.
Senator Bernie Sanders serves the people of the state of Vermont. Every state in the U.S. has two senators. There are two other senators currently running for president: Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
Doctor Ben Carson is a neurosurgeon. A neurosurgeon is a type of doctor who operates on the human brain. Dr. Carson is the only doctor currently running for president, but he is not the only non-politician running. Donald Trump is a businessman, which doesn’t come with a specialized title.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is an exception to our rule. The role of Secretary of State is specialized enough that it tends to be capitalized even when it isn’t associated with a particular person.
All of these folks want the chance to become president and to capitalize the title in front of their own name, just like President Barack Obama.
Who will win? We’ll just have to wait until November (which starts with a capital N) to find out!