Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Capping Revisited

by Annette Lyon

Last week's post about capitalizing (and capping incorrectly) sparked a few reader questions, so today I'll address those.

Generally speaking, compass directions are not capitalized. If I give someone directions to my house, I tell them to turn north at this street and west on that one, all lowercase.

But there are (rare) times when you do capitalize those words, and that's when they're being used as a name for specific, a large area that is known by that name.

For example, in the mid-1800s, there was a huge chunk of the country in North America (capping "north" here because it's part of the name of a continent) known as "the West."

If someone was heading out to seek their fortune, they were heading out West or to the West. It's a bit tricky in these cases, because grammatically, you could still use the term as you would a compass direction at the same time you're using it as a name.

But even in 1843, if someone gave directions on how to reach their cabin in the woods, they'd say, "Go west, past the two big oaks," not, "Go West."

When in doubt on this one, it's pretty safe to use lowercase. The exceptions are pretty rare.

Human/human and Alien/alien
The usage in your work will determine which you use.

By and large, if you're just referring to regular people on this planet and the idea of Martians, you'd use lowercase: human and alien.

However, if you're writing a science fiction piece and there are two distinct factions working together or fighting one another, you'd probably distinguish the groups by capping them: the Humans and the Aliens.

You could also be more creative and call your two groups something else altogether, and you'd cap whatever name you came up with, just like you cap American and Soviet.

Little People/little people
I wasn't sure on this one, so I did a little digging. It appears that either could be considered correct.

In my mind, it depends on what you mean by the term. Are you describing someone who has dwarfism, or are you describing them as one of a group of people who have dwarfism?

I know that's a thin line of distinction, but in my case, I'd err on the side of capitalizing this one, which would acknowledge the group and individual identity more than just a condition.

This one is much like the cultural and linguistic group of Deaf people, who prefer to have the term capitalized because it acknowledges their cultural identity rather than defining them solely by their lack of hearing, as "deaf" (lowercase) does.

Irish Folk Tales/Irish folk tales
This one is pretty straight-forward. Folk tales are simple nouns, so you don't capitalize them. You wouldn't capitalize Irish Beer or Irish Books.

"Irish," however, is obviously capitalized as a nationality.

You'd put it like this: Irish folk tales

The only exception is if you were to find a book on the shelf with that title, in which case capitalization rules with titles would come into play: Irish Folk Tales.

Daisies/daisies, Lily/lily, Oak/oak
Types of plants aren't considered names, per se. Use lowercase. Sometimes species or varieties might have a capitalized term in them because the extra term might be a name, such as with Japanese maple.

As for Emily M's question:
How do you feel about deliberate flaunting of the capitalization rules in order to Make a Point or maybe Be Sarcastic? It's also got a kind of nineteenth-century, Emily Dickinson sort of appeal to it, when it's done deliberately and well. I'm not talking about not knowing the rules; I'm talking about knowing them and choosing to manipulate them for effect . . . does that bug you too?

My opinion:
If done with obvious intent, not haphazardly, and it's clear that the writer knows the rules, then no, it doesn't bother me at all. As you said, the result can be very effective when done well.

But I don't recommend trying this kind of thing unless you really do know the rules and you're doing it with a definite purpose in mind, because it's painfully obvious when a writer stumbles because they don't know the rules in the first place. That's not effective; it's sloppy.

English is a fun language to play with. Shakespeare is known for the way he toyed with it, broke rules, and made up new words. He was a master.

If you're a beginning writer, I suggest having an apprenticeship period where you write straight, learning the skills you need.

Then, when you've learned the ropes, go ahead and have fun braiding, fraying, and tying knots into the ropes to see what you can do. Just don't go overboard with breaking rules. That can get annoying.


Ryan said...

I disagree with what you said about needing to have an apprenticeship where we write by the rules, and then after that we can break them. I think people who say that only say it because that's what they had to do. It's called school, and it wasn't fun. I say break the rules. Do it. If that is what makes writing fun to you, why not?

Sue said...

I break the rules on my blog constantly. I think it's because I have to be so structured and careful in my technical writing. Plus it's funnier. Comedy is all about timing and sometime dashes and caps and spaces and run on sentences can be a nice crutch - helping to achieve the timing needed for the sentence to be funny. (Blame Dave Barry - he was my run on sentence idol.)

I keep having to resist the urge to capitalize stuff in my book. I've picked up some bad blog habits.

Kimberly said...

Fascinating insights here Annette. As for the rule breaking, it's not breaking the rules if you don't actually know them, is it?

ansons said...

There's a difference between breaking the rules out of ignorance and breaking the rules for effect. If the rule-breaking doesn't add anything to the writing, it just coms off as ignorance.

Ryan said...

@asnons: So, is WRITING LIKE THIS ignorant, or ... ?

Or does it just come off as ignorant?

I'm starting to think that ignorance isn't such a bad thing when it comes to writing.

Sue said...


Most people who read that paragraph just thought - don't use caps when commenting - it's kind of an online unwriten rule that using all caps means that you are screaming. You can break the rule occasionally for effect, but if you use caps all the time people will just think you're a moron.

I think that's kind of what Annette's trying to get at.

Ryan said...

Well said, Sue.

I guess it's a harsh world we live in, even online.

I'll retreat now to moron land.

Sue said...

Ryan, I wasn't calling you a moron.

Ryan said...

Hey, you just caught me as I was out the door! Don't worry, I know you weren't calling me a moron :)

Annette Lyon said...

Sue, You're absolutely right--that's exactly what I meant.

And your blog is a fantastic example.

I don't think it ever occurred to me that you capitalize or do run-ons until you mentioned it. That's saying a lot, because I tend to be a stickler for the rules (and breaking them often makes my eye twitch . . .). But I didn't notice the rule breaking with your blog, because you do it well and with a purpose. It works.

On the other hand, I've read plenty of blogs (and manuscripts) where the writer clearly didn't realize they were doing anything out of the ordinary, and those "mistakes" come across as sloppy writing.

So Ryan, In my mind, it's not just coming off as ignorant that's the problem. It's creating writing that's less effective.

The goal is to get the message across in the best way possible. When that happens, the writing itself tends to be invisible, transporting the reader where the writer wants to take them.

But if a writer throws in a lot of errors (usually unwittingly), the reader won't get lost in your world; instead you leave them stumbling over roadblocks you put there yourself.

Great discussion, folks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Thank you!
You've answered my questions so well!

One other thing, if you have the time:

If you use Aliens (capitalized) do you have to capitalize it throughout the manuscript or sometimes can it be the aliens (lower case) too?

Again, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your blog today! Thanks!!!

Emily M. said...

Great answer, Annette. I'm reading a book right now that capitalizes for effect, and I do enjoy it... why are words made funnier by capital letters? I don't know, but this author makes it work.

Anonymous said...

PS By "Little People" I was referring to Leprechauns, which,in my own research, I have seen used both with lower and upper case.