Friday, August 3, 2012

To Cap or Not to Cap? That is the Question

One of the things that drives me crazy in published works is incorrect (or missing) capitalization. There's a simple rule of thumb you can follow to get it right 99% of the time. Proper nouns need capitalization; common nouns do not. What's the difference? In its simplest form, a proper noun indicates a specific person or place by name:


The Earl of Greenwich, Your Majesty, King James, Lady Ethel Swallowtail, Miss Aragon, Mommy, Captain Courage, and our Lord, Jesus Christ are all proper nouns. Rome, Mount Olympus, The Inn at Valley Forge, Burger Land, and Happy Fun Park (whether they're fictional or real places) are all proper nouns. But if I say my characters dined at the inn before going to the park, no capitalization is necessary.


Here's where it gets tricky. Apollo is a proper noun. The god of the sun is not. Why? Because "god of the sun" is not specific. Even if you're speaking to a group of Greeks, "god of the sun" is not specific. If I'm addressing my father, Dad is a proper noun. When I'm talking about Lucy's dad, it's not. If I'm talking to Lucy about my dad, it's not specific.


So... "Dad said you can't go to the beach without him."


or


"My dad said I couldn't go to the beach without him."


What's the distinction? The possessive. Adding that possessive (my, his, Lucy's) changes the noun from specific to generic, thereby removing the need for capitalization.


Let's try those tricky titles for the historical writers out there. The rules remain the same.


"The marquis strode across the ballroom." No cap.


"The Marquis of Waterford strode across the ballroom." Capitalize. 
Why? Because we've used his proper title, specific to him alone.

The same holds true for my lord, my lady, and milord and milady. These are not proper titles and do not require capitalization.


"May I help you, my lord?" (Note the possessive!)


"Have you seen Lady Katherine?"

Recently I read a self-published work where the author consistently screwed up "the judge" and "Mom," capitalizing the wrong one. "Judge Judy" is capitalized; "Here comes the judge" is not.

"I wish Mom could be here." Capitalized.
"I wish my mom could be here." No cap.

Now, let's talk deities. The only god that should be capitalized is the one and only God. Why? Because when discussing the "one nation under God" god, God is a proper name. You would also capitalize the name Zeus, but not his title of "god of the heavens." Buddha, Allah, Vishnu, etc. are all proper nouns that require capitalization. Generic terms such as gods, goddesses, demons, etc. are common nouns.

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22 comments:

  1. As always a good post. Thanks for the helpful tips!

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  2. When a member of the House of Lords addresses the house as a collective... My Lords? or my lords?

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    1. Hi FB! I assume you're talking about how to write the title in dialogue. Think of the term as you would the phrase, "ladies and gentlemen." So it could read as "My lords, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today..." or "If you would, my lords, turn to page three of the report..."

      House of Lords itself is always capped and if you're addressing one member or writing a letter to a specific member, Lord or Lady is capped, as in "The Right Hon.," or "Lord Speaker," or "Right Rev."

      Does that help?

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  3. And it gets even harder when you are talking about made up terms in a fantasy or sci-fi novel. Abercrombie's The Blade Itself has liberal (excessive) capitalization in it. I deliberated more than I probably should have over my own novel Veil of a Warrior.

    I even wrote a post on the subject, adamant that my opinion was fixed, then two weeks later realized I was going to waffle on part of it, and have as yet to fix my take on direct address using a title only. And it being one that is not unique in all the known universe. http://www.cliftonh.com/2014/05/a-clifton-primer-on-titles-of-address.html

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  4. This was helpful. Thank you!

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  5. Here's a wrench in the rules. When addressing by title in place of their name it goes back to be capitalized. (learned this with writing military stories.

    ex: "The general sent his men into war." no capitalized
    vs
    "Did you sen your men into war, General?" capitalized because 'general' now substitues name.

    Given that is the rule, that should turn, 'my lord' into 'My Lord' when used in the same way.

    "I am serving the meal to my lord."
    vs
    "I have brought you your meal, My Lord."

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    1. here is a link, #5 shows the rule I mentioned above.
      http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/capitals.htm

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    2. Actually, no. "my lord" and "my lady" are not honorific titles, and therefore receive the same treatment as such terms as "sir" or "ma'am." Check the CMOS under Titles and Offices.

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  6. I have one... How about "mien fuhrer" in dialogue if a character was speaking directly to Hitler? He was THE fuhrer and demanded utter respect from his subjects. Should both, either or neither words be capitalized? I know what the CMOS says, but this is Hitler...

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    1. LOL! "Mein Fuhrer" would be the same as "Your Majesty," and would therefore be capped when speaking to Hitler, whereas "the fuhrer, Adolf Hitler" is not. Does that make sense, Tori?

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Another couple of "in dialogue" questions:

    1. "Yield, thou worm," he rasped. "Yield, thou wisp which passeth away."

    In the above, is it be correct not to capitalize the titles? It seems to me that the "thou" makes the titles function as common nouns.

    2. "Yield, Wretch," he commanded.

    Would "wretch" be capitalized? It is being used like a name, only as an insult.

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  9. In both cases, the words would not be capitalized. One character can call another a wretch, a worm, a geek, a nerd, a rapscallion, or a son-of-a-*****. None are proper names and, therefore, not capitalized.

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  10. I have a question. What about referring to a king but not addressing him?

    For example: "Have you spoken to The King about this?"

    The specification that it is The King of Such-a-place is implied. Is it correct to capitalize?

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    1. Nope. You would capitalize it if you specified his name or full title. "Have you spoken to King Rufus about this?" or "Have you spoken to the King of France about this?" But if it's just "the king," no cap is used.

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    2. Thanks! I appreciate the help. Keep being awesome.

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    3. LOL. That's my full-time job. ;-)

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  11. I'm a copyeditor as well, and I have a maddening problem in a historical fiction manuscript. The author likes to use both "My" and the character title plus name at the same time: My Lady Jane, My Lord John. My preference would be to simply delete the "My" in such cases, but since it is very fictional and l sense the author may stet these for voice, I'm opting to simply lowercase the "my lady" and "my lord" preceding the names for appositional usage: my lady Jane; my lord John. What do you think of this compromise?

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  12. I'd do the same. Your author might still ignore the change, but all we can do is try.

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  13. I think I know the answer to this, but here goes. What about lords and ladies as a group. Eg. "He is having a lord and lady masquerade ball. You go as a lady, I'll go as a lord". Would either of the lord or lady be capatalized?

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