One of the things that stands out to me whether I'm reading for edits or reading for pleasure is the misuse of capitalization. It reminds me of handwritten letters from previous centuries and their Randomly Capitalized words of Importance. In fact, the US's own Declaration of Independence is full of them.
As I puzzled over this, and—more importantly—researched it, I discovered that the German language capitalizes their nouns. Not just proper nouns (those words which describe a specific person, place, or thing) but all the nouns. Trust me, it's a thing.
Because Johannes Gutenberg (inventor of the printing press in Europe, circa 1440) was German, this was undoubtedly his practice when using his shiny new press to produce any number of papers for distribution. As more and more people became literate, this capitalization habit was already commonplace.
In the English language (as in most other languages), nouns are only capitalized if they're indicating something specific. In older writings, people would capitalize words they deemed important—to heighten emphasis or simply for dramatic effect. These days, we can show where to put the oomph in our words with italics, or hit the bold key for the force we need, but back in the day, they used capital letters. It's all they had, the poor dears.
The problem I find these days is not a matter of emphasis, but rather a matter of not knowing. When people capitalize things like "I saw the King waving from the castle balcony," more often than not it's because they assume the word king should be capitalized because he's someone important. Of course, if it's Elvis waving from the balcony, then yes, capitalize it, because the King is one of his names rather than an official title. Also, have your eyes checked, because he really is dead and shouldn't be up on a balcony at all.
There is much confusion when it comes to titles of all types, whether religious, civil, academic, sovereigns, or military. Because I've edited a good number of books with characters in the military, and a handful that include royalty, I feel I'm fairly well versed on the yeses and nos. Here are but a few to keep in mind, most of them directly from my beloved Chicago Manual of Style:
- Civil titles
- the president; George Washington, first president of the United States; President George Washington
- the chief judge; Timothy C. Evans, chief judge; Judge Evans
- Titles of sovereigns and other rulers (Most titles of sovereigns and other rulers are lowercase when used alone.)
- Nero, emperor of Rome; the Roman emperor; Emperor Nero
- the king; King Abdullah II; the king of Jordan
- Military titles (These vary, depending on where they are. Military titles are routinely capitalized in the literature of the organization or government with which they are associated. Nonetheless, in formal academic prose, most such titles are capitalized only when used as part of a person's name.)
- the general; General Ulysses S. Grant, commander in chief of the Union army; General Grant; the commander in chief
- the captain; Captain James T. Kirk, commander of the Starship Enterprise
- Religious titles
- the pope; Pope Leo X; the papacy; papal
- the archbishop; the archbishop of Canterbury; Archbishop Williams
- the Dalai Lama is traditionally capitalized, but previous dalai lamas are not
Something I run across with regularity is the title commander in chief. Most people want to capitalize it because, of course, the guy is in command of important stuff. Many people also want to hyphenate it, and I'm not sure where they get that idea but they need to get rid of it. No hyphens and no caps. (I had a beta reader once tell me, "It seems to me that it should be this way." I replied to him that it seemed to me that the actual written rules on this were the way it should be.)
One of the first things I do when editing a book with military or medical titles is to do a find/replace for doctor, captain, lieutenant, sergeant (often misspelled "sargent"), commander, ambassador, and the like—and there are usually a lot of replacements. When referring to a captain or a doctor and not addressing that person directly, no caps are needed. However, if your character says, "Well, Captain, I've blown out our last remaining engine," then the word captain requires a capital letter because it's a substitute for the captain's name. The rule is pretty consistent for most titles.
If you are prone to randomly capitalizing words in your sentences, you may find yourself and your own reasons somewhere on this terrific list I found on The Straight Dope, where their motto is "FIGHTING IGNORANCE SINCE 1973 (it's taking longer than we thought)." I don't need to know where you fall on the list; the important thing is to learn from it.
And here's one final gem for fun or the development of a permanent twitch: a sign that not only showcases random capital letters, but random punctuation, a misplaced apostrophe and an unexplained lighter ink color for the most important part of the sign: WHAT is closed for repair?
*For those who care: the best explanation I found for the capitalization of nouns in the German language was on Quora from July 21, 2012, in an answer written by a German exchange student. I'll just give you the link, rather than take the space here. Cool stuff.