Capitalizing ‘President’

An argument for an exception to the style guides.

“Great Seal of the President of the United States – lobby – Richard M Nixon Presidential Museum and Library” by Tim Evanson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Loren DeJonge Schulman, a longtime senior staffer in the national security space now working as a writer and editor at a prominent think tank, takes to Twitter to offer:

From an editorial standpoint, she’s certainly right. As several interlocutors on the thread note, that’s what the AP Stylebook says. And it’s consistent with pretty much every other style guide with which I’m familiar.

It’s also a practice I’ve come to reject even though I’m with Loren on the larger fight.

American English has been moving away from capitalization as a steady pace in the nearly half-century since I started learning the rules in grade school. At the same time, the American bureaucracy—and particularly the Department of Defense—has seemingly become overtaken by the Germans, who treat every noun as though it were proper.

In my own years as an editor, I fought in favor of the former trend and against the latter.

Yet, in recent years, I’ve come to make an exception for the President of the United States.

First, I find “President” more clear than “president.” There are lots of presidents—hell, the Vice President is “President of the Senate”—but only one President.

Second, since Congress is a proper noun and therefore capitalized, there’s a parallelism in also capitalizing President, who is Constitutionally* their equal.

Third, and perhaps most influential in my own progression on this, the capitalized form encourages more respectful discourse.

While I would eventually come to admire and respect him considerably, I was rather bitter at Barack Obama’s election. While I always recognized his intellect and work ethic, I simply thought he was unqualified for the office. While Republican dismissals of him as a mere “community organizaer” went too far, he’d been a mere state senator and then started running for President almost immediately upon taking the oath as a United States Senator.

Further, the early sycophancy with which the press and the international community treated his ascension (a Nobel Peace Prize for simply taking office!) grated on me.

Over time, I increasingly made sure that I referred to him as “President Obama”** or “the President” to both remind myself that I was writing about the duly elected Chief Executive and to ensure that the tone of my criticism was sufficiently respectful as to have a chance of persuading his fans.

When Donald Trump was elected, those factors increased geometrically. He was much less suited for the Presidency by preparation than Obama and lacked his predecessor’s humility, intellect, and work ethic. And, as much as my much younger self considered Bill Clinton morally unfit to sit in the Oval Office, he was Abraham Lincoln compared to Trump. So, writing “President Trump”** and referring to him as “the President” is a useful corrective.

_____________

*Yes, I’m also a holdout on the proper adjective. I haven’t the foggiest why “congressional” and “constitutional” aren’t typically capitalized anymore when referring to the U.S. Congress and U.S. Constitution but I’m agin it.

**I’m aware that the form “President X” isn’t in dispute here; all style guides capitalize titles. But a lot of political commentary, especially on informal venues like blogs, tend to omit titles and just go with “Obama” or “Trump” on first mention. I’ve eschewed that practice in recent years, particularly when discussing officeholders whose views I don’t share. (I still use last-name-only on second and subsequent mention unless doing so would cause confusion.)

FILED UNDER: Presidency, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Further, the early sycophancy with which the press and the international community treated his ascension (a Nobel Peace Prize for simply taking office!) grated on me.

    The next Democratic president should get all of 2021’s Nobel Prizes, a Grammy, a Tony, an Emmy, an Oscar, and the Palme d’Or 🙂

  2. Teve says:

    @Kathy: and the Fields Medal, and the Légion d’honneur, and the Hugo. 🙂

    They didn’t give Obama the Nobel for being so awesome, they gave it to America for repudiating a dolt who lied us into a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Most Americans might be too self absorbed to even register those deaths, but a whole lot of the rest of the world isn’t.

  3. Franklin says:

    @Kathy: @Teve: You two just need to make sure the acronym sounds a bit sexier than EGOT, which at best sounds like a poor venereal condition.

    And speaking of the President …

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    By now you know my opinion on punctuation and grammar: did the reader understand? Was the reader engaged? OK then, I guess my punctuation and grammar worked.

  5. Kathy says:

    @Teve:

    If they get the Hugo, can we write off the Cheeto era as a bad dystopian novel?

  6. de stijl says:

    I’m with you on capital P President. It’s a small thing, but it just seems proper. The AP can do what they want. This your blog and if you’ve decided it should be capitalized when used as a proper noun, then go with it.

    I also like your thoughtful practice of using President X in the first use before switching to X thereafter. And this reasoning is pretty sound:

    …to both remind myself that I was writing about the duly elected Chief Executive and to ensure that the tone of my criticism was sufficiently respectful…

  7. Joe says:

    I am down with “President” (though not so much with this President). I also prefer the “Constitution” and the “State” when you are referring to a particular state, such as the “State of Nebraska” with follow on references to formal acts of the “State.”

  8. I’ve always assumed that “President” should be capitalized when referring to the President of the United States (or any other nation for that matter).

  9. de stijl says:

    This may be a tad OCD, but visually, “President X” just looks and feels better than “president X” to me.

    All of us unconsciously internalize a lot of rule-sets about grammar and usage and punctuation.

    For example, in that last sentence the standard usage would be “…grammar, usage, and punctuation.” (I’m a fan and proponent of the Oxford comma.) But, I often instead employ the “x and y and z” template for sets of three or more. I don’t know why – it just seems like a better flow or meter, and adds some punch.

  10. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I hear you, but if I were in Joyner’s shoes, I would adapt a journalistic style like he does.

    Most of the pieces here are straight current affairs reporting plus editorializing at the end:

    President Trump said “blah”. Speaker Pelosi responded with “blah”. Here’s a link to a NYT or Wapo piece with the background and context, and I’ll helpfully blockquote the interesting bits. Here’s a link to and a quote from an editorial piece I found intriguing. Here’s my take.

    That’s basically the boilerplate.

    If I had to write that piece, I’d adopt a reportorial style. Yeah, it’s a blog so you can be somewhat informal, but you have to nail the basics or you can appear as untrustworthy or amateurish.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    I used to be the restaurant reviewer for a paper in Portland, Maine and later the paper in Richmond, VA. (As Michael Robinson.) I loved that gig. I was (to put it mildly) a divisive figure. But I also did some free-lance feature writing and hated it because I couldn’t find a way to make it unique. I couldn’t render it in a specific voice because of the constraints of the genre. Part of writing for me is having fun, playing with words and phrases, determining rhythm, infusing it with a specific POV, gaming expectations, all that writerly stuff. I could not find a way to do that.

    I’ve often thought about the problem of making straight reporting or feature work ‘pop.’ Haven’t figured it out yet, and when I see people try it I’m usually just irritated by the results.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    I somewhere learned a rule that president is capitalized, as a title, for a particular President. So it’s President Obama or the President if referring to the current president. But, for instance, the president can veto bills for a generic president. Except that I follow Charlie Pierce’s lead with President* Trump.

  13. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I was (to put it mildly) a divisive figure.

    Color me shocked.

  14. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    You’d need to do it longform and dailies don’t do that. And the alt-weeklies are dying faster than fruit flies. Plus, you’d need a very patient and pliable managing editor.

    Tom Wolfe had his New Journalism shot – The Right Stuff was a pretty good book (and an amazing film – that movie is fucking gorgeous), but when he moved on from non-fiction it was utter shite. I couldn’t finish Bonfire of the Vanities, and I finish everything. Painfully bad.

    P.J. O’Rourke was interesting for awhile for being profoundly misanthropic, but descended into David Mamet-style right wing crankery lately.

  15. Gustopher says:

    I prefer “PrEsIdEnT(?!?) TrUmP(!?!) (WTF???)”

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @de stijl: I finished Bonfire of the Vanities. I don’t recall how it ended, so you probably didn’t miss much. Agree about The Right Stuff. But the people I knew who hadn’t read the book found the movie confusing. They kept asking what Yeager had to do with anything.

  17. de stijl says:

    @gVOR08:

    Sam Shepard was perfect casting. Doesn’t look anything like Yeagar, but it totally works. And Levon Helm! Best VO narration ever.

    There’s no plot, really, which is a bold choice.

    The score, the editing, the shot framing, the sheer visual panache – it’s astonishing.

  18. de stijl says:

    Chuck Yeagar has a cameo – he’s the bartender at Pancho’s.

  19. de stijl says:

    @de stijl:

    P.J. O’Rourke was interesting for awhile for being profoundly misanthropic, but descended into David Mamet-style right wing crankery lately

    This needs clarification – O’Rourke has been a right wing crank since the Clinton years.

  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @de stijl: On the other hand, do you refer in writing to Michael Reynolds as “Mr. Reynolds,” or “mr. Reynolds?”

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    It doesn’t even occur to you to suggest ‘your majesty?’

    In one way or another I’ve been Michael Robinson (birth name), Michael Reynolds (adopted/legal name), Alex Lobach, Carter Cannon; Frank, David and Michael Mates, Katherine Kendall, Francine Pascal, C. Archer, A.R. Plumb, Pat Pollari, C. Bennet, L.E. Blair Beth Kincaid, both Katherine and K.A. Applegate, and Michael Grant.

    When I tell my eldest I don’t give a fuck about how I’m addressed, what I’m called, pick a name, any name, she says my life is ‘non-generalizable.’