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The King is dead. Long live the King!

I received the following question from Jeanette about using capitals:

“I am a writer and always have problems with the following:
‘The king is dead. Long live King Edward.’
‘She told me Captain Lorca read the book. The captain could read.’

I am referring to the same king in the first sentence, and to the same captain in the second.  Why wouldn’t both be capitalized? Thanks for your help. I have no rule to follow with this problem.”

It’s a good question, with (quite) a simple answer.

In the case of “King Edward” and “Captain Lorca” we are using a person’s name. As you know, names in English are always capitalized. We write Edward, not edward. We write Lorca, not lorca.

When we also use a title with a name, we capitalize the title too. So we write King Edward, not king Edward. We write Captain Lorca, not captain Lorca.

But when we use the title just as a common noun, there is usually no need to capitalize it.

  • My taxi-driver could speak English
  • The waitress was tall.
  • Our doctor is nice.
  • The pilot spoke to the passengers.
  • Do you know the president?
  • The captain could read.

Just occasionally we may use an initial capital to show respect for a specific person with a very high title such as king or president. Usually this is when there is only one such personage (in a country, or perhaps in a company or ship). When we do this everybody knows exactly who we are talking about – it is like using the person’s name. Look at these examples, which show specific titles (capitalized) and non-specific titles:

  • The Prime Minister met the King last night.
  • Who is the King’s doctor?
  • The doctor prescribed some medicine.
  • There are many presidents in the world.
  • He is the president of this company.
  • The President wants to see you now.
  • Who will be the next president?
  • Who is the king of this country?
  • What is the King’s name?
  • The Titanic sank in the Atlantic. The Captain went down with the ship.
  • President Hu Jintao is General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.

This is also a question of style, and some writers might capitalize when others might not. When we are writing about a title or titles in general there is almost always no need to capitalize. Almost all writers would agree on the following examples:

  • Would you like to be a king?
  • Yesterday I met two kings and a president.
  • There were some kings at the meeting.
  • Each ship has a captain.
  • This hospital has twenty doctors.

So Jeanette is perfectly correct to write “The king is dead. Long live King Edward.” And the title of this post is also correct “The King is dead. Long live the King!”)

The important thing to remember is that when you use a title + name, they must both be capitalized

  • Queen Elizabeth
  • President Obama

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