Wednesday, July 16, 2008

To Cap or Not to Cap

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.

Today's topic:

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.


Tamra Norton said...

LOL--I tend to name cars in my stories. In the Molly series the old pickup is Old Blue. In the Make Me a Memory series the old minivan is The Bruise, and in my WIP, the RV is named Brutus. I guess I like B names.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

This is one of those things that if I pause to think about it I realize, "I already knew that." Catch me remembering it though? Yes, not so much.

Great post Annette!

Jami said...

Oh, Annette! I think I love you.

Heather Moore said...

Great explanations and comparisons!

Anonymous said...

This is so timely for me. I have actually struggled with whether something is the North or the north or human or Human or alien or Alien in my WIP.
Any further clarifications on those?

Anonymous said...

little people or Little People?
Irish folk tales or Irish Folk Tales?

Anonymous said...

Annette, 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? Just wondering.

Melanie Jacobson said...

Hyphens....please discuss.

No, really....please!

Annette Lyon said...

Anon and Emily, I'll address your specific capitalization questions in my next post (Wednesday).

Melanie, I recently wrote about hyphenated adjectives:

If that post doesn't answer your questions, let me know what your specific question is, and I'll go into more detail about hyphens.

Melanie Jacobson said...

Thanks, Annette! I thought I remembered a discussion of hyphens not too long ago but I couldn't find it and then figured I was losing my mind. Glad to know I'm still only on the verge of crazy. I'll re-read it!