Here’s a surefire way to stump your friends: Ask them whether it’s correct to capitalize Mother.
Or is it mother?
The answer, of course, is that sometimes Mother is correct; at other times it should be mother.
How, pray, can you tell when to use the capital letter? The conventional answer is to use the capital letter when it’s her name, like this:
I called Mother for her birthday. CORRECT
When it’s a role in life, use lower case:
Any mother appreciates a phone call on her birthday. CORRECT
A useful trick here is to remember that you always capitalize names: Joe, Clare, Fido, Cinderella.
But if you still find yourself getting stumped once in a while, try asking yourself who you’re talking to. I know – you’re wondering how that will help. But if you try it, surprisingly often the confusion will clear right up.
Here’s why: when you’re talking to a family member, “Dad” is clearly his name: “I talked to Dad this morning.” When you’re talking to someone else, “dad” is clearly a role: “I’m taking my dad to a baseball game this weekend.”
Let’s try these sentences:
I’m helping dad clean out the garage this weekend.
You’re welcome to bring your dad to the awards dinner.
In the first sentence, you’re clearly talking to a family member. In your little circle, “Dad” is his name. Use a capital letter.
In the second sentence, you’re talking to someone outside your family. If that dad indeed came to the dinner, you’d probably call him “Mr. Whatever.” He’s not your dad. Use lower case.
Here are the corrected sentences:
I’m helping Dad clean out the garage this weekend. CORRECT
You’re welcome to bring your dad to the awards dinner. CORRECT
And here’s one more clue: If you use “my” or “your,” the person usually isn’t a family member. You’ll probably use lower case.