Ask Our Editors: Kinship Terms

Q: Can you please clarify when I should capitalize family terms, like "Dad" and "Aunt," and other similar names for people?

A: The kindship rules in The Chicago Manual of Style can be confusing if you're not familiar with them. Here's the rundown from the seventeenth edition, rule 8.36:

  • Kinship names and titles (Father, Mother, Aunt) are capitalized: (1) in direct address or (2) when they act as part of a personal name and there's no possessive pronoun or other modifier before it. (That italicized part is key.) These rules also extend to words that might express a similar type of relationship (like Teacher, Coach, and Doctor). For example:
Will you come to the wedding, Aunt Dot? (capitalized as direct address)
 
You can count on me, Coach. (capitalized as direct address)
 
Do you think Aunt Dot will come to the wedding? (capitalized as part of a personal name)
 
Ask Coach Scheer. (capitalized as part of a personal name)
 
—but—
 
I was thrilled to hear my aunt Dot plans to travel to the wedding.
(lowercase, because my aunt stands in apposition to Dot and modifies it)
 
My daughter's coach really encouraged her through her batting slump.
(lowercase, as it doesn't precede a name and isn't used in direct address)
  • When referring to a group of family members, do not capitalize terms like sisters or brothers.
the Brontë sisters
 
the Wright brothers
  • Similarly, pet names or endearments, such as sweetheart, honey, dear, darling, son, bro, boy, dude, gentlemen, ladies, etcetera, should be lowercase, even in direct address. 

Seriously, bro, do not go over there.

Have a seat, son, and I'll explain it to you.

Wait a minute, you might think. Why would Chicago capitalize Dad in direct address but not son? They're both familial terms.

This is an excellent question, but there is a distinction: In the case of words like Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Grandpa, the family term is the stand-in for the person's actual name—that's literally what the family calls them. The children call their mother Mom, but no one refers to the young boy as Son. (For example: "Mom packed your lunch before she left for work." but not "Did you wake Son up already?") 

On the off chance that you do have a story in which the family refers to the son or daughter by their familial title as a nickname, then you would capitalize it. (For example: "Bobby, when you're finished eating, can you pull Sissy out of her high chair?")

Similarly, in the case of endearments and generic-sounding pet names, capital letters are unnecessary and can become distracting to readers, so stick with lowercase unless the character's endearment has morphed into the actual name that everyone calls them. And unless, of course, you're quoting Gollum:

"It was tricksy, Precious, very tricksy."

 

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