Father, dear Father, that’s a capital idea.

Dinan House of the Harp




Father is a noun like any other, except when it’s also a name. The same goes for mother, aunt and uncle. There are times when these take a capital and times when they don’t.
When you use Father as a name – For goodness’ sake, Father, must you smoke that pipe in here? – it takes a capital. You could replace it with George in that instance (unless his name isn’t George).
My father likes to smoke his pipe in the kitchen. In this case, I’m saying that the man who stands in relation to me as a father likes to smoke his pipe there.
Mother objects when Father smokes his pipe in the kitchen. Dora objects when George smokes his pipe in the kitchen.
My mother objects when my father smokes his pipe in the kitchen. You can’t replace the words mother and father with Dora and George in this sentence – my Dora and my George; therefore they are not standing in for names and take no capital. Try replacing them: My parents argue when Father smokes his pipe. You wouldn’t write my Parents.
Does your mother object when your father smokes his pipe in the kitchen? You could replace mother and father here, but it depends on context. If I know your parents as George and Dora, I could ask, Does Dora object… but as written, I’m referring to them indirectly through their relationship to you, as before.
You can of course apply the same rules to Mum and Dad.
Part of the perceived problem arises because these two people are your parents. If you changed the words, you’d see the difference.
My brother likes to smoke his pipe in the kitchen. My sister likes to smoke her pipe in the kitchen. (We’re an equal opportunities blog here.) You would probably not in modern parlance refer to your siblings as Brother or Sister: For goodness’ sake, Sister, must you smoke your pipe in here? That sounds rather Victorian. You would be more likely to refer to her by name instead. For goodness’ sake, Penelope… 
You would capitalise Sister, however, if the lady you refer to is a nun or a senior nurse in charge of a ward. In those cases Sister is a title. Brother also can be a title if referring to a member of an order of monks; similarly, there is Father (a priest), Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior. There is also Father of the House (parliamentary), which again is a title.
My aunt objects when my uncle smokes his pipe anywhere at all. Aunt objects when Uncle smokes his pipe. Aunt May objects when Uncle Simon smokes his pipe. Uncle Simon carries on regardless.


To sum up: if you could replace the word with a name, use a capital. If it’s a title, use a capital. If neither of these applies, don’t.


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About Lorraine Swoboda

Author of Mrs Calcott's Army. I write about the creation of a novel. It's a complete mystery, but I've done it. I also write about the basic building blocks of writing - grammar, punctuation, and those niggling things that you know don't sound quite right but you can't work out why. Writing is 20% inspiration, 40% perspiration, and 40% staring at the screen wondering what I pressed to make it do that.

6 responses to “Father, dear Father, that’s a capital idea.”

  1. Patsy says :

    I rather like the sound of Penelope the pipe smoking time traveller.


  2. Barbara says :

    Can I be cheeky and ask the correct way of writing, ‘your highness’, or ‘the king’, or ‘yes, sir’ ?


    • Lorraine Swoboda says :

      ‘Your Highness’ is always capitalised: it’s referring to the person in their role as King of Wherever, and is treated as though they were saying ‘King Wilfred’. Note that the person using such a title is inferior to the person addressed, so deference is implied too. If you say, ‘I must take this matter to the King,’ you’re inferring that it is to King Wilfred – ‘the King’ is a synonym for King W., and it’s again capitalised in deference to his rank. Similarly, the Princess of Wherever – shortened to the Princess; Princess Agatha of Wherever.
      If you were talking about kings in general, you’d lose the capital – ‘the kings of England from 1485 to 1547’ – because you’re referring to their position in government/the country/society, not to a specific person.
      As to ‘yes, sir’, that depends on a lot of things. A policeman replying to a query would say, ‘Yes, sir, it’s first on the left’ – ‘sir’ being used generically as a polite form of address because the policeman doesn’t know his name. There’s a case for saying that if the policeman was addressing his superior, you could capitalise it: ‘Yes, Sir, at once, Sir’ – to underline the difference in status, but that can be down to personal choice. Be consistent throughout, whichever way you choose. If it’s a lower member of the Court addressing the King, he’d do so as ‘Your Highness’ or, in older times, ‘Sire’; if it’s someone addressing another lesser superior at Court, I’d go for a capital ‘Sir’.
      ‘Yes, Sir Henry’ would always be capitalised – it would be part of the man’s title.
      In formal letters, ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ is always presented as such.
      There are occasional anomalies, and differences in American and English usage, but these are the main rules that matter.

      Hope this helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Susan A Eames says :

    I love the way you explain things so clearly, Lorraine. 🙂


  4. maggieslassie says :

    Thank you Lorraine. I’ve struggled with this problem.


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