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 Bee’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

90 Comments on Kinship Names: To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize?

90 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?

    • 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.”

      • Katy Gundlach says:

        I just wondered about your example, where you did not capitalize “great-grandma” when saying “great-grandma Jo.” Yet you said earlier in your response that it should be capitalized. Which one is correct? Thanks.

        • In the sentence “I loved the flowers my great-grandma Jo planted,” the kinship name is preceded by the possessive pronoun my. Therefore, in accordance with Rule 2 above, the kinship name is a word describing the personal name and is not capitalized.

  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” ?

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • In most cases, Mother (Mom, Ma, etc.) and Father (Dad, Pa, etc.), and Grandfather and Grandmother (or Grandpa and Grandma) refer to one’s actual parents and grandparents, whereas son, sister, cousin, brother, etc., are often used far more broadly: An older man might tell a younger, unrelated man, “Watch out for that nail, son.” Two good friends might take to calling each other “cousin” because they feel a special bond. So these familial nouns that do not refer to parents and grandparents are in their own sub-category: they have become complicated by poetic license. It might make sense, therefore, to capitalize these stand-alone terms only when the person addressed is an actual blood relation. (For more, see Shawn Wolf’s comments from March 1, 2016.)

  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.

  13. Erin says:

    I am inquiring about to capitalize ‘partners to a civil union”.
    is it name 1, name 2, “Partners to a Civil Union”, or “partners to a Civil Union”?

  14. Adilyn says:

    I have a question regarding listing names and kinship’s in something like an obituary. Should son, grandsons and sister be capitalized?

    He is survived by his loving wife of 50 years, Mary; son Dean (Laci); grandsons Coal and Nash; sister June (Paul) and sister-in-law Fran (Brian).

  15. Sara says:

    Hi, in my wedding program, how should I capitalize the following, “Richard is wearing gold cufflinks from his Great-Great-Granddaddy Johnson”.

    • As mentioned in Rule 2, a kinship name is not capitalized if it is preceded by possessive pronouns such as his, her, my, our, your, or their. Therefore write “Richard is wearing gold cufflinks from his great-great-granddaddy Johnson.” (The term “granddaddy” rather than “grandfather” seems informal for a wedding program, but it is up to you and your family, of course.)

  16. Michelle says:

    Hi there- Which is correct, Ryan’s wife or Ryan’s Wife? Thank you!

  17. Ruby says:

    Hello!

    Would you capitalize ‘brother’ in a situation like this:

    My brother took out the garbage and Mother was very happy.

  18. Alcia says:

    When referring to a brother as in a gang, would brother be capitalized?

    EX. I need to make sure my Brothers are safe.

  19. debbie says:

    When writing great-Grandma, do I also capitalize the word great?

    • Whether the word is capitalized at all depends on how it is used in the sentence. If it is used with an article or with a possessive pronoun such as “her great-grandma,” it is not capitalized at all. If it precedes a personal name or is used in place of a personal name, the word great is capitalized. There is no definitive rule regarding whether it should be Great-Grandma or Great-grandma, so choose a method and be consistent. You may also want to see our response of May 25, 2013, to Celeste, and our response of August 30, 2013, to Nancy.

  20. Amanda says:

    Is this correct? Do I capitalize great and grandma? Is there a comma before Marie?

    My great-great-grandmother, Marie.

    • In accordance with Rule 2 in the blog, if the kinship name is preceded by an article such as my, do not capitalize. Do not use a comma since the name is essential. Everyone has more than one great-great-grandmother, whether alive or not.

  21. Emily E. says:

    Rule 1 of your post on kinship names says to capitalize when the word is used alone, in place of a personal name. Your examples refer to specific, existing people; Mom, Aunty, etc. But what about when you’re referring to a hypothetical family member?

    I’m writing copy for a baby product company. Many of my product descriptions and the company’s About Me section include phrases like “the first three weeks of baby’s life” and “when baby starts crawling.” I’m talking about a generalized concept of any baby, not a specific, individual baby. In this case, should I still capitalize? Im thinking that capitalization is required, but it looks unnanturally formal and more specific meaning than using the lowercase.

    • Baby can be a kinship name in usages such as I love ya, baby, but we still wouldn’t capitalize it. It’s not a kinship name in your examples, because such names are attached to specific humans.

  22. Analiah G. says:

    “Abby’s great grandmother is from Africa.” Should Great Grandmother be capitalized?

  23. Karinn Martel says:

    I have a question I didn’t see here. If you are using words like dad, mom, son etc., in a sentence, do you use caps?
    I’e read that dad and mom should always be in caps, yet son and daughter should not. Is this true?

    “I see what you did there, son.”
    “I see what you did there, Dad.”

    Many thanks,
    Karinn

  24. Anirban says:

    I am curious to know how to treat ‘son’ in a direct address like the above example (I see what you did there, son) when used as a term of endearment (not addressed to a legal or biological son but just a term of endearment).

  25. Corbette says:

    Hi there,

    Which of the following is correct?

    I was recently contacted by my aunt, Holly Smith,…
    or
    I was recently contacted by my Aunt, Holly Smith,…

  26. manjeet says:

    awesome! exactly what I needed! but just a polite aside – what is the authority of all you say; for the CMS states common nouns like mom, son, father, are not to be capitalized. I wonder.

    • The Chicago Manual of Style’s Rule 8.35 says, “Kinship names are lowercased unless they immediately precede a personal name or are used alone, in place of a personal name.”
      Examples: Uncle Wayne or Grandpa.

  27. Grace says:

    According to the rule 1, the following sentence is correct:
    Did you break Mother’s vase?

    However, an elementary school teacher said the correct one should be like this:
    Did you break mother’s vase?

    I do not intend to argue with the teacher. I simply want to learn the correct grammar. Thank you.

  28. Wendy says:

    Capitalization of Mom and Dad

    Should the word Dad in the sentence below be capitalized?

    The protagonist in the story is saying this of someone else’s dad, not her dad.

    Will grabbed his Dad’s luggage and took it upstairs and came right back down.

  29. audrey says:

    Hi,

    I’m trying to figure out if when I write ” grandma (their name)” is grandma capitalized?

  30. ciara says:

    When referring to a family as a whole would it be the Smith family or the Smith Family? I’m unsure about the capitalization of “family”.

    Thanks!

  31. Mary says:

    My Mother is the best mother in the world she is kind to everyone I got that for homework and I need to rewrite the sentence. I know that instead of My Mother it should be My mother but how about the other one and also the end part
    Thnxs

  32. Susie says:

    I love your site and use it when I help others with writing. However, there is still quite a bit that I don’t know. When I use daddy in a sentence, as in, “time alone with daddy,” is it capitalized? Someone told me it is incorrect in a post on my blog.

  33. Alana says:

    Hi just wondering if you would use a capital for mom and grandma in these instances:

    ‘Hi mate. How are you doing buddy? Where’s mom?’
    Is mom a capital?

    ‘Mommy is in the kitchen with grandma.’
    Is grandma capital?

    • Since Mom and Grandma are used alone, in place of a personal name in your sentences, they should both be capitalized. Also, our Rule 8 of Commas says, “Use commas to set off the name, nickname, term of endearment, or title of a person directly addressed.” Therefore, use a comma before the terms of endearment mate and buddy.

  34. Aileen Zsenyuk says:

    I was taught that if I use a term in place of the person’s name, that term should be capitalized. Example:
    Please help me fold this laundry, Dear. Also, what about titles like “Sir.” Example, “Please, Sir, may I have more?”
    One final question: If I use the word “club” in place of the full name of the club, is “club” capitalized? Example: The members of the Irish Club will hold a cocktail party for Club members only. (If I don’t capitalize “club,” it could mean that the members of any club could attend.)

    • The word dear is considered a term of endearment, not a kinship name. A term of endearment is usually not capitalized, even when used as a direct address.
      The Chicago Manual of Style does not recommend capitalizing the word sir.
      Regarding the word club in your example, when you refer back to a proper noun using a shortened version of the original name, you may capitalize it, but in this case, since “club” is so generic, we would advise against it. If the group were called the Irish Society, on the other hand, a capital s (for Society members only) might be a good idea.

  35. Shawn Wolf says:

    I understand Rule 1, but it seems that common usage in that Mom or Dad is capitalized when used alone in place of a personal name, but son and daughter aren’t. So, these sentences look ‘normal’ to me:

    “Are you coming with us, Dad?”
    “Not today, son.”

    Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Mom and Dad can be used like this:

    “Mom is going to the story today. She wants to know if you need anything.”

    But you wouldn’t see something like this:

    “Son has a baseball game this afternoon.”

    It’s almost like in this form…

    “Not today, son.”

    …the ‘son’ is a form of endearment, like ‘sonny’, ‘honey’, ‘dear’, etc., which are not capitalized.

    • You are correct. Mom and Dad are kinship names. For words like son and daughter, please also see our response of May 23, 2014.

      • Carla says:

        So if I understand correctly, “Mom” and “Dad” are capitalized when they’re by themselves because they can be used as the subject of a sentence, whereas “son” and “daughter” are taken as terms of endearment and are therefore not capitalized. How about kinship terms like “cousin” or “uncle”? If a person says “Sorry about that, cousin,” would it be capitalized?

  36. Carol Grammer says:

    When writing a research paper that is referring to all mothers, you do not capitalize “mothers,” do you?

    e.g., Most Mothers spend a lot of time in the car transporting their children…

  37. Kristen says:

    I am creating wedding programs and want to ensure I use the proper form of mom. The sentence is as follows…

    Shortly after the moms are seated, in comes Matthew followed by our fabulous wedding party.

    Should moms be capitalized?

  38. Jodi says:

    I am writing an essay on my ancestor. He is my 7th great-grandfather. Is it correct for me to use 7th as opposed to seven-times or seven times? Please help.

    • We claim no expertise in this genealogical matter, but it seems reasonable to write 7th-great-grandfather, seventh-great-grandfather, seven-times-great-grandfather, or even to spell out “great” all seven times, using hyphens.

  39. Sam says:

    In saying that someone was someones brother, father, uncle etc would we use capitals? eg: Dearly loved brother, father, uncle and son.

  40. Lynn says:

    Hello,

    What is correct?

    Hi aunt Lynn, or
    Hi Aunt Lynn,

    Thank you.

    • As stated in Rule 1 of this post, since the kinship name immediately precedes the personal name, it should be capitalized. Also, our Rule 8 of Commas says, “Use commas to set off the name, nickname, term of endearment, or title of a person directly addressed.” Therefore, a comma is required after “Hi.”

  41. Brian says:

    I called my grandmother “Mee Maw.”

    Which would be correct?

    My mee maw told me I couldn’t go barefoot before May 1.
    My Mee Maw told me I couldn’t go barefoot after Labor Day.

    The second one looks better because Mee Maw isn’t a term like “grandma”.

    Thanks for input.

    • By using the possessive pronoun my, the word becomes more of a description than a personal name, as explained in Rule 2 in our post above. However, this is a special case, and if you wish to cap “my Mee Maw,” it could be acceptable as a form of poetic license.

  42. Christine Gray says:

    July 23rd.2016
    Dear Jane S.
    Wow you just taught me lessons in proper grammar, I could never understand completely in English class.For that I want to thank-you.
    I am in the process of writing a Book with series to follow behind or trilogy,whichever you prefer to term the books. Now my question to you is: How well did I just write this blog. The worst to the best please. I would like an honest opinion.
    Thank-you

  43. Margaret says:

    Do I capitalize Son in this sentence?
    In this chapter, we will deal with Abraham and his Firstborn Son Ishmael, born of the bondwoman.

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