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Monday, March 29, 2010

Q&A a la Ann Landers: When Did the Rules on Capitalization Change?

Fowlers Modern English Usage Third Edition


When I was in junior high (tough school) the English teacher decided only three students wanted to learn and instead of teaching how to diagram sentences only taught capitalization. I still don't understand diagramming and it doesn't seem to affect my writing life but I got very good at capitalization. This was enforced later in my career as a librarian where capitalizing organizations and titles had special rules.

So, Carolyn, tell me, when did the rules change and why wasn't I informed?
How about these examples:

1. "President Obama said..." or "The President of the United States said..."
2. "The president said.." (not just any president)
3. "I toured the Chicago Public Library's collections..."
4. "The library's collection included..." (not just any library)

Any tricks to getting it right? Or at least not in too much trouble until the editor's final decisions?
Amber Polo, author of Flying Free

My Answer:

This is a classic example of how teaching grammar rules in general terms backfires on teachers, the student, and the education system as a whole. I was confused about the verbs "to lie" and "to lay" for years because I was taught several different rules (all at least partially incorrect). By the time I'd been through fifteen different teachers with fifteen different ideas and explanations and examples, I wanted to cry. The thing is, it's really soooooo simple. They just didn't know how to teach it. (Note: I give that to you in one easy paragraph in Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips for Writers: The Ultimate Frugal Booklet for Avoiding Word Trippers and Crafting Gatekeeper-Perfect Copy (

As far as caps are concerned, we are taught something like, “Capitalize when you are referring to a specific person or place.” Then we put our thinking caps on and dissect every reference we make to a specific person and place.

So “President Obama” is a specific person and deserves those capitals. But when we say “the president” we are also thinking of Obama, so isn’t that specific? Sure it is, but we’re still referring to him in general terms and “president” is not part of a full title. Ditto for your “library” example. Thus, no cap would probably be used in most cases for the #2 and #4 examples.

But here’s the thing. There is a difference between hard fast grammar rules and style choices. I just sent a book for retailers out to the printer (Frugal and Focused Tweeting for Retailers) in which I capitalize every use of “Twitter” (which fits with the rules of grammar because it is a company name) but I also cap “Tweeting,” “Tweet,” and lots of other words that have been inspired by the Twitter phenomenon. I explain why I do that in the “Before We Start . . .“ section in the frontmatter, but I didn’t need to. I decided on that style choice to indicate how important Twitter has become in many aspects of our lives including our vocabularies!

So, when critics fault someone for their use of caps, they may be wrong . . . and right. An example. The LA Times style choice is “website.” The New York Times uses “Web site.” Not only is there a difference in capitalization but also in using it as one word or two.

Throw a little extra something into the mix. Rules do change with time, something you mentioned.

Oh, and one more confusing thing. Different rules apply in creative writing. It's OK to use grammar incorrectly in, say, dialogue or when you are trying to create a voice.

So, what is the trick to getting it right? If you're a creative writer, sign up for an online subscription or buy yourself a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. Buy a real copy (a new one--not something that's 20 years old because it's cheap) and use it.

Read books by respected modern editors. That probably doesn't include the venerated Fowler's, that everyone considers holy. That book can confuse a creative writer learning rule-oriented grammar. In fact, it generally does that to people and that's exactly what happened to you, Amber.

We get caught up in the rules, confuse one rule with another, try to memorize a catalog of rules (impossible!). I have a dictionary of English (just English--not other languages except for some borrowed words from French, German, Latin, etc.) that is over one foot thick. I have at least a dozen grammar and style books on my desk. English isn't simple enough to boil down to a few rules and a few verbal guidelines like the one that tripped you up.

Rules don't suddenly change though, with the advent of the Internet, the changes seem more sudden than they used to. They change over time and they change because we (meaning lots of people) start to use something (like capitalization) in a different way. Thus we have several style books and all of them are "right" and they all disagree on many, many issues. Newspapers tend to use the AP Stylebook, book editors tend (but not always) use the Chicago Manual of Style. All are listed as good (-: reading in the Appendix of The Frugal Editor. (
Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at, where writers will find lists and other helps on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog.
Find me tweeting writers' resources at And please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:

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