by Annette Lyon
The longer I'm working at this editing thing, the more I see the same problems in manuscripts. They're so common, so pervasive, that I'll be blogging about them for the next little while. Then maybe I'll get to stop fixing them in future jobs (one can always hope . . .).
I'm not talking about plot, characterization, or conflict. I'm talking about the little things that clutter up the manuscript and make you look less professional. It's time to pick up the old feather duster and clean-up your manuscript.
Don't capitalize unless you're supposed to.
In English, we capitalize proper nouns (names) such as John, Seattle, or Yellowstone Park.
We do not capitalize other nouns, no matter how important we think the noun is.
In other words, even though you may adore your parents, don't write, "my Mother and Father." They may be fantastic people, but they're still your mother and father—lowercase.
If you take a cruise, you're on a ship, not a Ship. I've seen writers capitalize random nouns like Leader, Car, and Room. (No, no, and no.)
If the word isn't at the beginning of a sentence or an actual name of something, use lowercase.
So when do you capitalize?
When a word is acting as a title in the sentence. That means the word you're capping must come immediately before the person's name:
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was in office.
You capitalize "president" here because it's attached to Lincoln's name. It's acting as a title, as if it's part of his name.
When "president" appears elsewhere in the sentence, just describing Lincoln, (and no matter how important the role of president is to the nation or the world), you don't capitalize it:
Abraham Lincoln was the president of the United States during the Civil War.
Now back to the mother/father thing. If you refer to your parents using "mother" and "father" as names, then you do capitalize them:
"Hey, Mom, look! He's hitting me!"
Hint: Do you have "my" in front of "mom" or "dad"? If so, use lowercase:
"I told my mom that he was hitting me."
In this case, you're describing/modifying your parent. So "mom" or "dad" aren't acting as names or titles, but as regular nouns, like "my book" or "my computer."
(And remember, we don't capitalize regular nouns!)
Most writers I've worked with err on the side of capitalizing too much, so when in doubt, you're probably safe making it lowercase.
If you adored the truck you drove in college, sorry; it's still just a (lowercase) truck.
Unless it's a (capitalized) Dodge Ram. And unless you named it (yes, cap it!) Bruno.