Column: Political style: capitals, capitols and togas


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Great job, you voted! You exercised your right as a non-felonious adult American citizen to democratically elect the people who will represent us in our state and federal governments for the next few years. Even if the dust hasn’t completely settled yet in the elderly man popularity contest known as this year’s presidential election, you at least want to sound smart when you’re talking and/or writing about this year’s contest. Here are some tips on how to sound like a regular Doris Kearns Goodwin while chatting about politics.

First, do you know where we get the word “candidate?” Probably Latin, right? Yes! It comes from Latin, and its origins are downright fascinating. In Ancient Rome, togas were the tuxedo of their day, and as formal Roman attire, people running for the Roman Senate wanted to stand out from the crowd. To become more visible, the political hopefuls would rub shimmering white chalk on their togas, which were known as “toga candidas” (white togas). A person wearing the toga candida became known as a “candidatus.” Perhaps Joe Biden’s Crest 3-D Whitestrips contain this same hidden ingredient: glittery white chalk.

Did you know that The Associated Press Stylebook dictates that the terms “first lady” and “first gentleman” are not to be capitalized? That’s not because they don’t like Melania; it’s for two reasons: They’re not official titles and governors’ and mayors’ spouses also are referred to by the same titles. However, just like Republicans and Democrats, the Chicago Manual of Style disagrees! Since I’m writing for newspaper audiences (whether you’re holding a physical paper or reading this on your digital device), I’ll subdue my letters and keep it lowercase.

When it comes to the president and vice president, capitalization depends on the context. You should capitalize the titles “president” and “vice president” when used immediately before a name: President Barack Obama has a great jump shot. Lowercase the word “president” when using the word by itself or after a name: She may not have won the race, but she’ll always be president of my heart. It is never appropriate to capitalize all of the letters in “president,” unless your caps lock is permanently stuck “on” while you furiously thumb-type your tweets. I’ve heard this happens to some people.

Whether you’re voting someone into the capital (of your state) or the capitol (of the United States), it’s good to know when to capitalize the titles of the people involved. Oh, and by the way, only capitalize “capitol” when you’re referring to the building in Washington, D.C., or the record label (Capitol Records). And if neither of the two primary parties suits your interests, perhaps you should let your hair down and throw a party. That’s a capital idea!

Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at


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