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Kinship Names: To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize?

Several readers have asked why kinship names, such as names of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, etc., are sometimes capitalized and sometimes not. Let’s have a closer look.

Rule 1: Capitalize a kinship name when it immediately precedes a personal name or is used alone, in place of a personal name.

Examples
Andy and Opie loved Aunt Bee’s apple pies.
We adore Uncle Malik, because he always treats us like royalty when we visit him.
Grandma and Grandpa were married in a chapel in a small French village.
Let’s go ask Mom if we can go to the movies.

Rule 2: Do not capitalize a kinship name when it is not part of the personal name but is a word describing the personal name. This usually occurs when the kinship name is preceded by articles such as the, a, or an; or possessive pronouns such as his, her, my, our, your, or their.

Examples
Andy and Opie loved their aunt Bea’s apple pies.
We adore our uncle Malik, because he always treats us like royalty when we visit him.
My grandma and grandpa were married in a chapel in a small French village.
Let’s go ask my mom if we can go to the movies.

Rule 3: Do not capitalize a kinship name when it follows the personal name or is not referencing a specific person.

Examples
The James brothers were notorious for robbing scores of banks and trains.
There’s not one mother I know who would allow her child to cross that street alone.

Pop Quiz
Select the correct word:

1. We’d travel all day to eat a meal prepared by our aunt/Aunt Ella.
2. When I saw the letter from mother/Mother, I knew it contained only good news.
3. Lydia became a mother/Mother at twenty.
4. I’m sorry, son/Son, but we’re not going to have a campfire tonight.
5. Some fathers/Fathers build a campfire every night.

Answers:
1. We’d travel all day to eat a meal prepared by our aunt Ella.
2. When I saw the letter from Mother, I knew it contained only good news.
3. Lydia became a mother at twenty.
4. I’m sorry, Son, but we’re not going to have a campfire tonight.
5. Some fathers build a campfire every night.

Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2012, at 4:16 pm


23 Comments

23 Responses to “Kinship Names: To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize?”

  1. Cheryl A. says:

    I have been checking a proof for my book. I was confused about the capitalization of family titles–and find it all boils down to whether there is a posessive pronoun before the family title followed by their name. After much searching, your article finally satisfied me…providing the handle I needed before accepting the editor’s proofs. Thank you for providing this service.

  2. Celeste says:

    Hi, I come to your site often when I have proofreading questions. In the following sentence what should be capitalized?

    I loved the flowers Great Grandma Jo planted.

    And also should it be Great-Grandma instead?

    • Jane says:

      Rule 1 in our blog Kinship Names says, “Capitalize a kinship name when it immediately precedes a personal name or is used alone, in place of a personal name.” Since Great-Grandma precedes the name Jo, it should be capitalized. However, there is no definitive rule regarding whether it should be Great-Grandma or Great-grandma, so choose a method and be consistent. Also, it should be hyphenated since the hyphen distinguishes “great-grandma” from “a grandma who is great.” To avoid any worries, you could rewrite the sentence as, “I loved the flowers my great-grandma Jo planted.”

  3. Tamirys says:

    Hi, I’m in doubt about possessive case in this:

    Mary’s home

    or

    Mary’ house.

    Thank you!

  4. Wanda says:

    When writing a note, do you capitalize friends as in…

    Dear friends,

  5. Nancy says:

    Under Rule 1, would both “great” and “grandfather” be capitalized? For example, would it be: “I asked Great-grandfather Ted a question,” or “I asked Great-Grandfather Ted a question” ?

    • Jane says:

      Since there is no definitive rule regarding whether it should be Great-Grandfather or Great-grandfather, choose a method and be consistent. To avoid any worries, you could rewrite the sentence as, “I asked my great-grandfather, Ted, a question.”

  6. Kathy says:

    Hi, although I understand the conventions regarding kinship names (this blog is a great help!) I really want to capitilise all references to Mother and Father, Ma and Pa in my novel because of the importance of these kinsfolk in the story. Would resders just think I didn’t understand the grammatical conventions? Many thanks for your advice.

    • Jane says:

      It is possible that readers who are proficient in the rules of grammar could be bothered by the unnecessary capitalization. As an author, it is your decision whether or not to go unconventional.

  7. R. Alan says:

    Your article was a great help, but I’m still not sure if the capitalization in the following sentence is correct.

    Mother and Sister greeted Father and Son at the door as they marched triumphantly in with the Christmas tree bound in twine, and riding on their shoulders.

    • The kinship names Mother, Sister, Father, and Son are all used in place of personal names, therefore they are capitalized (although who is related to whom is not clear). They would not be capitalized if the sentence read “Her mother and sister greeted her father and son at the door…” (Of course, the word Christmas is capitalized because it is the name of a holiday.)

  8. Nicole Hewitt says:

    What would you do if the character uses an adjective before the name? For example, should it be:

    “I don’t care what you think, Little Brother.” or

    “I don’t care what you think, little brother.”

    Thanks for your advice!!

  9. Lindsay says:

    Do you capitalize the article “the” when referring to a family… for example

    Our neighbors, the Garzas, are hosting the block party this year.

    or should it be..

    Our neighbors, The Garzas, are hosting the block party this year.

  10. August says:

    When using the terms ‘Ma and Pa,’ I know you capitalize them when talking about your own parents. But what about someone elses? Leaving them lowercase just doesn’t look right.

  11. David says:

    Do you capitalized grandmother in the case of

    “. . . in the photo beside Joan is Jim’s grandmother, Ruth Smith.”

  12. Tarryn says:

    Hi there, I want to find out what the rule is on ‘going to be a grandma again’ or ‘going to be a dad again’. My understanding is that once you are you are- you can’t be it again if you already are. Unless something happened to the first child and they are no longer around.

    Appreciate your feedback on this.

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