Tuesday, May 11, 2010

To Cap or Not to Cap

This question comes up in some form or another at least once a week. Which words do we capitalize, and which are lower case? Whether internet/Internet, Iraq war/Iraq War, or some other term, often we are unsure whether to hit the shift key on that first letter.

If you don't know house style rules, here's a safe way to find answers to these questions.

Check the AP Style book.

For the casual kinds of writing usually employed by genre fiction writers, AP style will be a safe fallback position whenever you run into these kinds of questions. Most of us use AP as a sort of baseline for a lot of technical questions like spelling, caps, hyphens, and so on. We may diverge from their rules here and there, but even when we do, it won't hurt you to follow AP. It's an accepted and recognized standard.

What if you don't have an AP style book and can't get to one?

Check Webster's. Not all dictionaries are created alike, and writers have been known to have bitter rows over which is a better standard. Some swear by the Oxford English Dictionary because of its comprehensive etymology. It's great for historical fiction writers. Some prefer American Heritage for its insightful inclusion of regional dialect and jargon.

So why am I advocating Webster's?

Because that's what AP does. When AP doesn't specify a particular spelling, it defaults to Webster's.

I keep multiple dictionaries on hand to check shades of meaning -- comparing definitions across dictionaries can often reveal subtle connotations. But for matters of style, when the Red Sage book is silent, we go to AP and, like AP, to Webster's.

Regardless of which method you choose, be sure to remain consistent. Don't use the OED variant for the first usage of a term and the Webster's for the next. Don't mix your internets and your Internets in the same document.

Which are your favorite dictionaries, and why?



Jordan said...

I have a shortcut set up in my bookmarks so I can just type "mw WORD" and it looks up WORD in Merriam-Webster online. I like that one in particular because it has the year the word entered the language (though just overall, not for a particular usage). (Is that the same as Webster's these days?)

(If you're in Firefox, you can do this by bookmarking http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/%s (including the %s), and then editing the properties of that bookmark to add the keyword mw or whatever you'll remember.)

Jami Gold said...


Thanks for the tip about Firefox keywords. I hadn't played with those before. Cool! :)

Jami G.
(Word verification: debumsup)

Judi said...

My fav dictionary is American Heritage -- because years ago I bought it on CD and have loaded it on to every computer I've owned since then. It has a great thesaurus function. Plus, since it's on my hard drive, I don't have to "risk" going to the internet to look up a word and end up "researching" for an hour. For sentimental value, I also have a Websters that my Mom gave me when I was 13.

Dave Shaw said...

There's a very handy dictionary/thesaurus tool for PCs called WordWeb available at http://wordweb.info/. I use the free version. The dictionaries it accesses aren't perfect, but 99% of the time it does what I need, and it works with virtually any Windows application. I use the free version, which is nearly always good enough for me.

green_knight said...

My favorite dictionary is the New Penguin since it matches my usage better than the OED or American dictionaries.

Julie Harrington said...

My favorite dictionaries are:

Webster's New World Dictionary (3rd college edition) -- that big thick thing. I can't use the abridged dictionaries that are the weird slender paperbacks. They leave a lot of words out! LOL.

The Wordwatcher's Guide to Good Writing & Grammar. Not so much a dictionary per say, but a quick answer guide to pesky grammar usage problems.

The Visual Dictionary. I can't remember the exact title, but instead of being comprised of word definitions, it groups everything by pictures, say, types of knots, architecture, etc., and *shows* you what things look like. I find it very handy.


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

My favorite is Webster's Academic Dictionary, printed in 1867, though I save it for my historical research because it's not sturdy enough for every day use. I own at least 20 English language dictionaries.

I use the Random House College Dictionary most, because it's big enough to give nuances, but not too heavy to lug down from the shelf. I lust for the OED, though!

I've always assumed I'd need to change to fit house standards, so it hadn't occurred to me to worry about choosing one particular dictionary.

Wordy Bird said...

What about the Chicago Manual of Style? That's what I use as the industry standard for fiction.

Edittorrent said...

Chicago is a bit on the academic side of the style spectrum. It's fine for things like formatting, of course, and for more formal forms of fiction. The difference is in the tone.

But for things like hyphens and spelling and so forth, I think either one is fine. Just choose a convention and stick with it. We use AP because we want something toned more like the common parlance.


Anonymous said...

I switch between the free web www.dictionary.com and my Oxford dictionary.

I noticed AP isn't an e-book yet :(

Wordy Bird said...

Thanks Theresa, that is interesting. I am a fiction editor (and author) and bound to use CMS by my editing network for fiction, but interested in learning more about other styles. Love your blog, by the way.

Also, as far as favorite dictionaries go, I have two unusual ones, which I love dearly: 'Chambers Dictionary of Etymology' and 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable,' both wonderful rainy day reading for word nerds.

Edittorrent said...

Rachel, I use those too-- dictionary.com for the usual stuff (I swear, I look up the word "erstwhile" every time I read it... there's something about my brain that doesn't love that word), and the OED for etymological info about when the word entered the language.