Thursday, April 6, 2017

Editor's Notes #30: A Question of Random Capitalization

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.


  1. Oh shoot, but excessive capitalization is kinda my thing...
    Song a Day

    1. Well, I hate to cramp your style, but I'm going to. Yet again.

  2. This is *almost* worse than misplaced apostrophes, but not quite. I'm wondering if there is a setting on Facebook or android that automatically capitalizes everything? I've seen posts and texts that have every word capitalized. Wouldn't that just be a lot of extra work if you have to do it manually?

    1. Almost! It all makes me twitch.

      I'm not sure if there's a particular setting, but I do find that my Android phone (after updating) not only doesn't recognize my swipes, but it gives me the most odd replacements and capitalizes almost all of them. "Favre" for "face," "Havre" for "have," and my most recent gem, "adultery" for "supper" when I was texting with my boss . . . as in, "I'll listen to that song and will let you know as soon as I'm done making adultery."

      I've. Also. Seen. People. Whose. Posts. Have. An. Abundance. Of. Caps. But. Also. An. Abundance. Of. Periods.

      I'm not proud of myself for typing that just now, fyi. And you know how hard it must have been.

  3. Ich spreche Deutsch so könnte ich dir das schon erzählen.
    ^I speak German so I could already tell you this

    (It was either learn German or Spanish in high school, and the Spanish classes were full, so... 4 years of German + idiot savant memory = completely useless language skills)

    Ich habe einen Bauchnabel. That means I have a belly button. Since it's capitalized, I assume it's a very important belly button!

    For all of this capitalization, one of the biggest mistakes I see involves not capitalizing a word... the Internet. Now, there's a big debate on whether you should or shouldn't, and even Oxford/AP have differing styles; Oxford says capitalize, AP says don't. Ultimately, as a tech nerd and a writer, I say capitalize because it's a place, and that's its proper name. Things like web, website, homepage, blog, and so on, aren't capitalized because those are things. The only one you capitalize is the magical place where you can find all of those things: the Internet.

    That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

    1. Now I'm über impressed. See? I used the ü thing to show you how hip to the German stuff I really am.

      Actually, I truly am impressed with anyone who has managed to retain whatever second language they learned in high school. I managed two years of Spanish in junior high and one year in high school, and I can ask directions to a bathroom and know the word for "beer." Um, and "cockroach," but only because there's a song for it. I could eavesdrop on Spanish speakers and find out nothing if I so choose, in fact. You, on the other hand, could go to most parts of Europe and fit right in, because most people speak German as one of their three (overachiever) languages.

      I feel privileged to know someone with such an important belly button. I'm going to have to tuck that knowledge away for a rainy day when I need a favor. Belly button-related favors don't come around very often, so I'm not likely to forget where to turn in my time of need.

      Internet is one I struggle with. Not the idea of capitalizing it, but simply remembering to do so. Chicago says to cap it, and I am powerless to disobey my pale blue master, but every so often I'll catch myself not giving it the proper name it deserves.

      And because your comments always remind me of something odd (take it as a compliment), your "magical place" reminds me of Homer Simpson's "magical animal" that produces pork chops, sausage, ham AND bacon. Incredible that we live in such a world.

    2. I love that one, but my favorite magical pig bit (which there are so many of, I'm sure) is from Jim Gaffigan.

      Bacon is the most beautiful thing on earth. Even the frying of bacon sounds like applause. Pigs are magical. They take an item like an apple - essentially garbage - and turn it into bacon. That is magic.

    3. That's great! Next time I make bacon, I'll listen to the sizzle and imagine I'm being applauded for my excellent meal choices.

  4. I capitalize Internet (when I remember to do so). I also saw Elvis in a Stairwell in Downtown jacksonville. It was Super Creepy and weird. He's Decomposed a bit. Great post, of course.


    1. Poor Elvis! Rotting in a Stairwell just like an Average Person.

  5. You worked Star Trek into your post - that is uber cool.
    Also had a good chuckle about your Elvis comment.
    Since my books deal with space military, I had to get the Commanders and commanders right. People would've noticed had I done it wrong!

    1. Alex, you probably have all those military terms engraved on your brain by now. And yes, I take every opportunity to work Star Trek into most of life.

      Once you have the terms correct, it really stands out when someone does it wrong. I would imagine most of your readers know the difference because the genre is important to them.

      Not that I had trouble with the capitalization of this, but once I edited a book that had the word "majesty/Majesty" in it so often that I started wondering if it was really a word, looking at it over and over to see if there was a misspelling somewhere.

  6. My writing partner used to capitalize randomly. I told him we were no longer in the eighteenth century.

    I've also noticed that a lot of people capitalize only the first word of a title, especially the title of a song. I was taught that you should capitalize the first, last, and all important words in a title.

    Many people nowadays don't use capitals at all.

    I must confess to writing "internet" instead of "Internet."

    1. My phone drives me nuts with not automatically capitalizing "I" when I type. I should not have to keep going back to fix it.

      Capitalization of titles seems to have undergone a lot of rule-bending. I learned the same as you did, but I've noticed that song titles seem to capitalize all the words, whether they're important or not. It's especially irritating to me, since I work with music all day. On my other (long-neglected) blog, I tended to only capitalize the first word of my post titles, as if they were merely sentences. It was purposeful, and certainly different from what I do here.

  7. I'm pretty sure my phone is German. It thinks everything is important except me . . . since it always gives me "i" when talking about myself. And this wasn't inspired by your comment above, I was thinking it as I read the post lol

    All in all, I'm just so happy I live in a time that offers many options to add oomphs to my words. OtherWise I'D HaVe To DO ThIs. :P

    Really great information. I have a draft I'm working on about capitalizing titles for articles, movies, TV shows, etc. This will be a great link back for this particular section of it. Half my work is done, phew! LOL But seriously, I always get confused with this aspect of writing. I'd capitalize "President" or "MY Editor" and "Her Glasses" all the time. They seem important enough.


    1. Well, of course you should always capitalize "MY Editor" and "Her Glasses" because those are Truly Important Things.

      My phone woes are the same as yours (as you're well aware, with us trying to fix the autocorrects all the time). Mine won't even capitalize things when I try to anymore. It changes them and I STILL have to go back.

      Good thing we're smart enough to know when it's wrong, though. And I'm super glad to have helped you eliminate so much research time for your next bunch of posts.

  8. Just one phrase. Autocorrect is the devil.

    1. I'm not only in complete agreement, but so is anyone I've ever texted.


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