Cheat Sheet: Identifications and Ages

Among the hardest things for my journalism students to master are the capitalization and punctuation of identifying people, and the punctuation of ages. Here’s a cheat sheet I hand out to them:

The rules—in terms capitalization and commas—are kind of complicated, so let’s take a look at some examples, first with IDs.

1. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama addressed Congress.
2. The president, Barack Obama, addressed Congress.
3. Barack Obama, the president, addressed Congress.
4. The Commencement speaker was billionaire Bill Gates.
5. Bill Gates, a billionaire, spoke at commencement.
6. Bill Gates, the seventh richest man in the world, spoke at commencement.
7. The seventh richest man in the world, Bill Gates, spoke at commencement.
8. The software pioneer Bill Gates spoke at commencement.
9. Software pioneer Bill Gates spoke at commencement.
9. Speaking out against the rule was sophomore Ellen Jones.
10. A sophomore, Ellen Jones, said she is against the new rule.
11. Ellen Jones, a sophomore, said she is against the new rule.
WRONG: Ellen Jones, sophomore, is against the new rule.
WRONG: Sophomore, Ellen Jones, is against the new rule.

Here are some rules that hopefully will make sense of the above:

Capitalize identification only right before name, and only if it is an official title (President, Senator), as opposed to a description/characterization (billionaire, software pioneer, sophomore).

If identification is after name, always surround it with commas (as in 3, 5, 6 and 11).

If identification is before name, use comma if this is the only person that fits this description (chairman of Microsoft, seventh richest man in the world), or if the identification starts with the word “A” (as in 10).

Ages (Note: with ages, always use numeral rather than spelling out the word)

1. The winner was Jimmy Smith, a 10-year-old.
2. The winner was 10-year-old Jimmy Smith.
2. The winner was Jimmy Smith, who is 10 years old.

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