Military terms and style in fiction: Get them right
NOTE: The following are general guidelines on usage and capitalization of military terms, services, and ranks when writing primarily for a U.S. audience.
Using the wrong word, or capitalizing a military term incorrectly, may fly right by a reader who has never been in the military or is unfamiliar with military terminology and style, but if a reader has served in the military, it waves a big red flag that the writer didn’t do the research. Minor errors can create the impression in the reader’s mind that the author is writing about something with little to no knowledge of the topic. That breaks the ‘suspension of disbelief’ for the reader.
So as a diligent writer, you do the research on usage, and guess what? You’ll find a variety of conflicting advice, recommendations, and style choices. Which one should you use?
There are two basic and safe choices to make: Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) or Associated Press (AP). There are even a few differences between the two. CMoS is generally regarded as the primary style guide for fiction and non-fiction books, and AP is the premier style for journalism.
There are also formal military writing style guides. Each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has its own style guide for how they use military terms. Like many organizations, they prefer to uppercase a wide variety of terms in internal writing and documents that the fiction writer wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, normally capitalize.
For ranks such as private, captain, and admiral, there are traditional abbreviations and capitalization styles, and then each service branch has their own set of styles.
For example, if Fred Jones is a colonel in the U.S. Army, the military would write his name as COL Jones (all cap, no period). But Bill Smith is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, so he writes his name Col. Smith.
It’s going to look pretty awkward and inconsistent if you have both COL Jones and Col. Smith as characters in your novel. Your best bet is the traditional abbreviation “Col.”– and the recommendation of both Chicago and AP style is stick with the traditional abbreviations regardless of which branch your character serves.
Keep in mind that different branches of the military have different ranks. Call a Navy officer a colonel and you’ll lose a lot of readers since there is no such rank in the Navy.
In the Navy, a captain is a senior-grade officer, the same level as a colonel is to the Army, Air Force, and Marines. On the other hand, a captain in the other services is a junior-grade or company-level officer, three ranks below that of a Navy captain. One way to help remember this is that in the Army and other services, a mid-rank officer may captain a small group of people (like a company, which usually consists of 100 to 250 soldiers), but in the Navy, a much higher ranking officer will captain a ship or the largest ship in a fleet and all the sailors onboard.
There are also a variety of levels of some ranks. If your character is a lieutenant, is he a first lieutenant or a second lieutenant? Is your character a sergeant, a staff sergeant, a technical sergeant, or a master sergeant? Study the ranks and be familiar with them. Your readers may well be.
When do you capitalize a rank such as Colonel/colonel or Sergeant/sergeant?
Sticking with CMoS and AP style, only capitalize ranks when used as a title with a name or as a name. Use lowercase when referring to the rank generically or collectively for a group.
“I spoke with Col. Jones today.” (title is capitalized)
“I spoke with the sergeant today.” (generic term even though referring to a specific person)
“Yes, sir, Admiral.” (used as a proper name)
“We’re meeting with several generals at the Pentagon today.” (generic, collective)
Notice the title is only abbreviated when used with a name. In other cases, spell out the word, the same as you would with Mr. or mister or Mister and Dr. or doctor or Doctor.
Besides the exact ranks, know the difference between enlisted ranks and the officer corps; between commissioned, non-commissioned, and warrant officers; and between field officers and general officers. Know which ranks, in what order, for each service, and know the general job duties of each rank. You don’t want a general piloting a fighter jet (not likely) in a war zone, and you don’t want a corporal leading a brigade or a lieutenant giving orders to a major.
The names of the services are another conundrum for deciding when to capitalize.
Is it Army or army, Navy or navy, Marines or marines, Air Force or air force?
Again, assuming you’re writing for a U.S. audience, then remember that proper nouns are capitalized. The names of the official branches of the U.S. military are proper nouns – like corporate or organizational names.
- U.S. Army
- U.S. Navy
- U.S. Marine Corps
- U.S. Air Force
Do you still capitalize the U.S. military branches even when you shorten the term by dropping the ‘U.S.’ It depends. Chicago Manual of Style says no, but AP style says yes. Here, my personal preference goes to AP as the word is still referring to the proper noun of the official organizational name.
CMoS: Bill served in the navy in the Gulf War.
AP Style: Bill served in the Navy in the Gulf War.
Do not capitalize when referring to a generic military or to the military of another country, unless you’re specifically using the proper noun for the foreign military organization.
Sarah became friends with her counterpart in the Iraqi army.
The navies of five countries clashed in the battle that waged for three days.
SOLDIERS, SAILORS, AIRMEN, MARINES
Another point you want to get right is the correct term for a service member based on which branch of the military he or she serves. Meet a Marine in a bar and call him a soldier, you may find yourself with a black eye. Call a Marine a soldier in a novel, you’ll get a black eye from many readers.
Army – soldier
Navy – sailor
Air Force – airman (male or female, doesn’t matter, they’re all airmen)
Marine Corps – Marine
One exception: the word ‘soldier’ is a good generic term for a military service member, especially of a non-U.S. military, when the specific branch is not specified or known. But if your generic military member is serving onboard a ship, chances are he’s a sailor, not a soldier.
Did you catch the capitalization difference on Marine used above?
In AP style, Marine is treated differently than soldier, sailor, or airman. That’s because Marine is one of two cases in which the title of the service member is the same as the proper noun of the organization (we’ll get to the second case later). CMoS, however, doesn’t draw that distinction and does not capitalize marine when referring to an individual member of the Marines. To me, the AP distinction makes sense because it is specifically using the proper noun. But if you want to be consistent and stick with CMoS throughout your book, then go with lowercase marine.
Joe is a Marine, serving in the Marines. (Marine is capitalized in AP Style, but not in CMoS)
Susie is a soldier, serving in the Army. (soldier is not capitalized)
Only follow this capitalization rule on Marine if you’re writing about a U.S. Marine (who serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, which is often shortened to ‘the Corps’), and writing for an American audience.
Boris is a marine, serving in the Russian marines.
Here again, the military branches have their own style guides that differ. If you’re in the Army, for example, and you’re writing a document for the military, the Army’s style guide will capitalize Soldier. But that’s not the style fiction writers should follow.
Here’s a point you won’t find in style guides. For those who have served in the Marines, they take a lot of pride in their service and their branch of the military, and they have a saying: “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
If you’re writing about a character who used to serve in the Marines but is now out of the military, the word ‘ex-Marine’ can cause a lot of consternation from readers who are or have been Marines. “There are no ex-Marines,” you may hear from readers. While there’s nothing technically wrong with this term, why irritate readers unnecessarily? A ‘formerly active-duty Marine,’ or ‘a Marine who served in the 1990s,’ or some other phrasing that makes it clear this character used to be in the Marines but no longer serves might show a Marine reader you get it. There are no ex-Marines.
One other organization to mention: the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is slightly different in that it is under the Department of Homeland Security. Previously, it fell under the Department of Transportation. It is not under the Department of Defense, but it is still considered a military service branch, although it’s the only military service not under Defense.
A member of the Coast Guard (male or female) is a Coast Guardsman, capitalized like Marine since it shares the same title as the proper noun of the organization.
MEDALS OF VALOR
One last pet peeve of mine, and this will set teeth on edge with any military readers.
Athletes win medals at the Olympics.
Service members do not win medals.
Service members are awarded medals for acts of valor and heroism. It is not a contest or a competition. It is awarded for an unselfish act of courage. If someone has received a medal, he is a recipient of that medal, not the winner.
Never say a soldier won the Congressional Medal of Honor. You’ll have military readers throwing your novel across the room in anger.
If you’re writing about military matters in any detail, do your research. It’s important to get it right. How many people are in a squad, a platoon, a company, a brigade, a battalion? How many sailors are onboard an aircraft carrier? What’s the difference between a destroyer, a cruiser, and a frigate? Why do some Navy ship names start with USS and others start with USNS? Isn’t every fighter pilot in the Air Force? (The answer is no.)
The details are endless, and a good portion of your readership will know if you get it wrong.
Post Script: Discussion has arisen about use of periods in the abbreviation U.S. vs. US. Again, there are different styles. AP still uses periods in text (U.S.), but CMoS says either are correct and prefers without (US). However, CMoS says to use without periods if you use the postal code abbreviations for states (NY, MD, IL, CA), but use periods with U.S. if you use the standard state abbreviations (N.Y., Md., Ill., Calif.). I find the postal abbreviations in states awkward in fiction writing, so my personal preference is to stick with U.S. and standard state abbreviations.
Army ranks: https://www.army.mil/symbols/armyranks.html
Navy ranks: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ranks/officers/o-rank.html
Air Force officer ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/officer-ranks.html
Air Force enlisted ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/enlisted-ranks.html
Marine Corps ranks: http://www.marines.mil/Marines/Ranks.aspx
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robb Grindstaff has never served in the military, but for thirteen years worked for Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper published for U.S. service members and their families stationed overseas. He served in positions including general manager of the Asia/Pacific region, based in Tokyo, Japan, and executive editor in the Washington, D.C., headquarters. Robb’s newspaper career has spanned more than thirty-five years. He has edited fiction for ten years and has two published novels (Evolved Publishing), one of which is about a teenage military brat growing up overseas (Carry Me Away), plus a dozen or so published short stories.