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The Sometimes Peculiar Use of Capital Letters
I never thought I'd see the day when I would sit down and actually remind my readers that the pronoun "I" is capitalized or that each sentence starts with a capital letter. But e-mails, and most particularly texting, seem determined to reduce our language to a mere semblance of its former self. For the purpose of this blog—aimed, as always, at authors writing fiction—let's pass over the most well-known uses of capital letters as quickly as possible and get down to the ones so many find tricky.
Use initial caps for:
1. Names. (People, Places, Businesses, and Organizations) John Doe, Omaha, Nebraska, New York City, East Oshkosh, Brazil, Africa, the Pacific, Lake Baikal, General Motors, the Girl Scouts of America, the Blue Angels, etc.
2. Titles. President, Chairman, Duke, Duchess . . . BUT only when they are combined with a person's name. Otherwise, they are lower case.
Example: the President of the United States, President Obama BUT
The president sat at his desk.
The duke rode his horse each morning.
Grace note: Just to complicate things, the publishers' "bible", The Chicago Manual of Style, disagrees with the general publisher usage of English titles. It states: "the duke of Marlborough" is correct when most publishers go with "the Duke of Marlborough." I personally recommend capitalizing the title (duke, earl, viscount, etc.) when it is directly associated with the proper name of the title (William, Duke of Cambridge).
3. Personification. In writing Fiction, we sometimes give people names derived from their appearance. In one of my recent novellas, for example, I referred to two ladies of the evening as Shocking Pink and Scarlet. Basically, any time you take an ordinary word and personify it, use initial caps.
4. Initials & Acronyms. I often refer to myself as GAK. We hire a DJ to play at a party. But if you need a Medical Examiner, for some reason periods are usually inserted (M.E.) - probably because it comes out as ME and looks more than a little egotistical. You can, of course, earn a PhD, and many of us couldn't do without a CPA to help with our taxes or our businesses. And then there are all those government and military alphabet soups, the FBI, CIA, DOD, DHS. In Florida we have the FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement). And OCLS (Orange County Library System). Acronyms have become a way of life. And Heaven help any poor e-mailer or texter who can't read them.
5. Emphasis. Authors of Non-fiction or Literary Fiction (note the initial caps) will likely cringe at this one, but it's a legitimate use of caps for most Fiction authors. In a manner similar to the use of Shocking Pink and Scarlet mentioned above, a character might be described as "Hot" or a "Hottie." (Italics, of course, can also be used for emphasis, but somehow the effect is not quite the same.) This kind of capitalization should be used sparingly, but it is permissible in most Fiction, particularly Romance.
Elaboration on the above:
1. Titles used in place of names in Direct Address.
Aye, aye, Captain, I'll do that right away.
Of course, Your Grace.
Would you repeat that, Sergeant?
BUT for some reason modern publishing makes an exception for:
Are you sure you know where you're going, miss?
I'm so sorry, sir.
Grace note: No matter what approach you take, you'll probably run into a publisher with a different style sheet!
2. Religious Titles work the same way as noble and military titles.
Pope John Paul II
The pope delivered an Easter blessing.
3. Epithets & Honorifics.
the Iron Duke
His Eminence, Cardinal Richelieu
Your Honor, Judge Perry BUT
The cardinal disagreed, to the bishop's dismay.
The judge, looking down from the high bench, frowned.
4. Nationalities, Tribes. In a manner similar to that cited in #2 above, Scotland is capitalized, but scotch whiskey is not. Kentucky is capitalized but bourbon is not (unless you're referring to a specific named bourbon or it's part of a name on a label!)
Basically, if you're talking about a specific name, it's capitalized. If you're using the word generically, it is not.
5. Historical Periods. the Middle Ages, the Georgian Era, the Jazz Age, etc.
6. Events. Festival of Trees, Reign of Terror, the Kentucky Derby, The Florida State Fair
7. Holidays. Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Yom Kippur, Ramadan, etc.
8. Deities. God, Yahweh, Allah, Holy Ghost, the Trinity, Prince of Peace, etc. Also ancient gods, such as Apollo, Venus, Zeus, etc.
9. Religious Services. Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, High Mass (with generic exceptions). There will be a high mass at one o'clock. The cathedral offers four masses daily, six on Sunday.
Other exceptions: generic terms such as morning prayer, bar mitzvah, sun dance, vespers, etc. Also ark, mandala, rosary, shofar, stations of the cross, etc.
10. Military. The names of military forces are capitalized; for example, Army Corps of Engineers, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Royal Air Force. Again, the exceptions are generic: Wellington's army besieged Badajoz. A navy task force sailed for the South Pacific.
Battles, Campaigns, and Theaters of War are also capitalized, as are the names of medals.
Examples: the Civil War, Battle of the Bulge, World War I, Purple Heart, Silver Star, etc.
11. Transportation. The names of ships, trains, aircraft & spacecraft are capitalized. (They are also italicized.) Victory, Arizona, Enterprise, Challenger, etc. The different models are merely capitalized: Nike, Camry, Concorde, Silver Meteor, etc.
12. Astronomical Terms are capitalized: the Big Dipper, Andromeda, the North Star, Southern Cross, etc.
13. Radiation. Although I'm a great believer in using a capital X in X-ray, The Chicago Manual of Style says it can be written with a lower case x as well (x-ray). Other rays, however, are all lower case, whether, beta, gamma, cosmic, or ultraviolet.
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The next section, Titles of Works, is such a biggie, I'm going to leave it for next week. Don't forget to come back for Part 2 of "Using Capital Letters."
Grace note: A huge thank you to The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, for providing the solid backup for this list. (I did my best, however, not to steal their examples!)
Thanks for stopping by.
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