You probably know that Captain James T. Kirk is capitalized, but did you know that James T. Kirk, captain of the Enterprise, is not? The same goes for Doctor Thorndyke, but not Thornedyke, the sadistic doctor.
What’s up with this? Well, individual titles are not capitalized in writing unless they precede the bearer’s name. Neither do you capitalize a title when it stands on its own, as in,
The captain thrilled to see so many green, alien women aboard the Enterprise.
The same rule applies to titles separated from the bearer’s name by a comma, as in “the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.”
You would, however, capitalize a title when it is used as an address independent of the bearer’s name. So, for example, if a character is pleading with an evil overlord not to burn anyone at the stake this week, your character would say,
Please, Master! Too few minions are left for you to burn Hildreth and Edric!
The exception, in my opinion, is the deliberate capitalization of a title that stands on its own, independent of its bearer’s name, when you want to indicate self-importance. For example, say you are writing a story about an extremely arrogant professor. He thinks of himself as indispensable to his university’s lab experiments, and so, when you are referring to him, you might write,
The Professor, of course, knew that the chinchilla experiments could not continue without his expertise in chinchilla psychology.
Now, what are the titles that you should capitalize? Here follows a quick list.
- Civil titles (judge, mayor, governor, and so forth)
- Military titles (captain, admiral, lieutenant, and so forth)
- Religious titles (pope, archbishop, presbytera, and so forth)
- Academic titles (professor, doctor, and so forth)
See? Not much to remember, and even easier to properly introduce your evil overlord. After all, we wouldn’t want him to burn you at the stake.