Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Capitalization

I've been seeing a lot of random errors in capitalization lately -- these things do tend to come in waves, though it's anyone's guess as to why. I deal with writers all over the world through an assortment of classroom, workshop, private coaching, and other settings. These folks sure aren't being exposed to the same ideas or instruction that would lead to these errors suddenly cropping up. Just something in the air, I guess.

Lately, it's been overuse of caps, rather than under-use. Random common nouns, in particular, are getting heavyweight status. It would be as though in this Sentence we chose to cap -- well, you see it. This might be a result of chatspeak trends where people use caps to emphasize words, but it's probably not something you want creeping into your fiction unless you're writing something highly stylized and tightly controlled.

Use a capital letter:

* At the beginning of a new sentence

* For names and other proper nouns (Mary Smith, France)

* For formal titles when used in conjunction with names (Lady Mary Smith, Chief Wiggam)

* For the titles of specific geographic locations (Lake Michigan, Ohio Street) and for designations related to these locations (Italian-American, New Yorker)

* For the proper names of institutions, organizations, businesses, and government bodies (English Department at the University of Chicago, League of Women Voters, Doolittle’s Bar and Grill, Internal Revenue Service)

* At the beginning of a direct quotation (Mary said, “Let’s go to Doolittle’s.”)

* For the pronoun I

* For calendar items (Tuesday, Christmas Eve)

* For words in the title of a book or other work of art, including the first and last word and all other words except articles, coordinating conjunctions, and short prepositions

* For the call letters of radio or television stations

If it's not on this list, don't cap it. Easy, right?

Theresa

16 comments:

Remus Shepherd said...

My beta readers keep telling me to capitalize ethnic groups: Asian, Spanish, Italian-American. I'm still not sure if that's an actual rule.

Edittorrent said...

Yes, that would be correct. Cap them. I think those would fall under the rule for geographic designations, but I'll amend that part of the rule to clarify.

Theresa

Deb Smythe said...

What about when using a title only in direct address? I've gotten conflicting feedback.

But, Captain... or But, captain..

Edittorrent said...

Deb, it's a specific, named captain and not just a common captain? Then you cap it because it's associated with a name. That is, it's "Captain William Jones" (big C) rather than "the captain of this ship" (little c). So if we know his name and they're calling him "Captain" as an abbreviated form of "Captain Jones," then you cap it.

Theresa

Jessica Lei said...

Perfect list. NOW if only half of American could memorize it!

Adrian said...

Brand names, but not generic product names (Cheerios toasted oat cereal).

And one I've always wondered about: French fries or french fries?

Edittorrent said...

I see lots of what I think are incorrect caps of positions, like, "I'll send that resume on to my Director."

I think only if the title precedes the proper name ("Director Steven Spielberg") should it be capped, and often not even then. What say you?
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Reamus, I think that if the part of the cognate combined term) is capped (Italian restaurant, French fries) otherwise, keep the cap.

However, I notice that "italics" is not capped, and "Roman" as in font is. But then, "italics" isn't a geographic word but just based on one.
Alicia

Clare K. R. Miller said...

Don't forget other acronyms, like AIDS, that aren't names of organizations but are commonly used in the language.

"I see lots of what I think are incorrect caps of positions, like, "I'll send that resume on to my Director."

I think only if the title precedes the proper name ("Director Steven Spielberg") should it be capped, and often not even then. What say you?"

Terms that refer to specific people should be capitalized in address or if being used as a name, but not otherwise. For examples:
"Hi, Dad!"
I said hi to my dad. (no caps)
I said hi to Dad.

I see a lot of confusion on that point too.

So for your example, you would write:
I'll send that resume on to the Director of Human Resources. (not being used as a specific person, but a position)
I'll send that resume on to Director Bob.
I'll send that resume onto the director.
"Hi, Director!"

Wes said...

What is the proper format for the title of a book or film? I've gotten in the habit of capitalizing all letters such as GONE WITH THE WIND. I suspect I am wrong.

Christina Auret said...

When you said all you get stuff from all over the world I wondered regional rules might not play some part. In German they capitalize all nouns. Some of the English translations of German maintenance manuals retain this usage. It can be pretty insidious. I have trouble writing reports about the main condenser and remembering to not to call it the Main Condenser.

Coolkayaker1 said...

I will await the reply to Wes's good question. In addition, although a book title is capitalized, how should The Bible be handled. Is the title The Bible, or The Holy Bible? I can see if someone is "holding a bible" it could not be caps, but if someone is "holding The Bible" then it would?

Although the list of rules for capitalization is good, it seems to include the cases/instances that are not difficult; the difficult uses of caps are in the questions posed here in the comments section. Or is it Comments Section since it's a specific entity.

Edittorrent said...

Aidan, it's French fries. One big F, one little f. I think that's why it's confusing, because it's mixed.

Wes, we only need to cap the first letter of the title words. Cap all words within the title except for articles and 2- or 3-letter prepositions that fall within the middle of the title. (iow, always cap the first word, even if it's The, Of, At, or another sometimes-exempted word.)

Of Human Bondage
Gone With the Wind
An Affair to Remember

Theresa

Edittorrent said...

Christina, yes, we do run into that sort of thing pretty frequently. And you know, it's not even always ESL writers -- sometimes native English speakers from other countries have different grammar and style conventions. But we edit for American publishers, so we stick to American rules.

Theresa

Edittorrent said...

Coolkayaker1, it's "the Bible" or "a Bible" when referring to the book that Christians read. That single word, Bible, is the title of the book, and falls under the second-to-last rule on the list:

"For words in the title of a book or other work of art, including the first and last word and all other words except articles, coordinating conjunctions, and short prepositions."

Ditto for specific translations referred to by name. They're titles of books and are capped in accordance with the rule.
The St. James Bible


But if we're talking about a generic usage, such as "bible" used to describe an authoritative reference -- as in, "the Ann Feitelson book is the bible of Fair Isle knitting" -- it's a little b. Because in that case, we're not referring to the title of the particular book that Christians read.

Theresa

Coolkayaker1 said...

Thanks, Theresa. Very knowledgeable and helpful.