Saturday 28 April 2007

On Christian vs christian

A correspondent has come across a book written by an American Christian priest who has used a small 'c' for Christian. Finding this 'odd, if not slightly disrespectful', she asks: 'Is there a rule for writing Christian or is it personal choice?'

The dictionaries are generally scrupulous about matters of capitalization, making such distinctions as 'cap'(italized), 'sometimes cap', 'usually cap', and so on. I've just looked at half a dozen: the OED, Longman, Chambers, and Collins all give it with a capital, and make no qualification. There is a hint of variation in US dictionaries: Random House gives it only with a capital, but Webster (which lists all its headwords in lower-case) says 'usu cap'.

None of these dictionaries distinguishes between the adjective and noun use: to my intuition, I would find a christian person more acceptable than a christian. With some people, intuitions are probably being affected by the Internet, where a general trend towards lower-case usage is noticeable.

But the norm is clear: Christian. And as publisher copy-editors tend to follow dictionary practice, what is surprising is to find a lower-case version allowed through in a book. This suggests that the author is making some sort of point. If so, I would expect to see it reflected in other, related usages, such as bible for Bible, or protestant for Protestant. However, my correspondent says that the author writes Episcopal priest, with a capital. So it does rather look as if some point is being made, consciously or unconsciously. There are many possible interpretations. For example, I can imagine a Dawkinsian writer lower-casing certain religious names to make a cheap point; I can imagine a denominational writer lower-casing all names bar one to make a point about identity; and I can imagine a mystical writer lower-casing names to make a point about humility.

It would make an interesting stylistic exercise to work out what was going on in this case. Or, of course, one could just ask the author.


fizzog said...

Christianity (with a capital C; but I fudged the point by putting it at the beginning of the sentence!) is littered with decisions of this sort. For me, I write 'Christian', since I would not ever write 'jewish', 'buddhist', or 'muslim' - though, oddly, 'atheist' is almost certain to be the form people use. (I wonder why?)

Does one write 'Bible' or 'bible'? Avoiding a kind of C18 preference for capitalized nouns, I tend towards the latter. Same with 'scripture'. But what do you do with personal pronouns for Jesus? Are we to sprinkle capital letters in the text when referring to Him/him? Some writers do, but I find the style cloying, overly pietistic and intrusive.

I suspect, but don't know for sure, that there are several different criteria going on in this range of examples.

And what about Church/church? There I tend to reserve 'Church' for macro use (a denomination, the worldwide Church, etc), and 'church' for more micro use (a local congregation or church community). It makes sense to me, but it may not to everyone!

Any further thoughts on all this?

DC said...

It's clear, from looking at any dictionary, that there is a huge amount of usage variation with respect to capitalization. I recall Sid Greenbaum once making a study of variants in dictionaries, and finding that a huge 20 per cent or more of entries had alternative orthographies, with capitalization one of the most frequent issues. In editing general encyclopedias, I am always coming up against this problem - is it President or president, Prime Minister or prime minister? There are hundreds of such cases. So I don't think there is anything particularly unique about the religious domain. We are, as you say, talking about a multiplicity of criteria, and it is difficult to work out what they are, sometimes. Orthographic tradition, publishing house-style norms, British vs American usage, and other institutional factors mix in with personal considerations such as the ones you mention.

I think it's important, once one has opted for a usage, to use it consistently, in a single work. This is what I try to do with the encyclopedia editing, anyway.

I think we must expect some changes, as Internet (?internet) usage becomes more influential. Hitherto, anything appearing in a printed form would have gone through a copy-editing process which would have standardized capitals according to house-style. This process is missing in email, chat, blogging, and so on. Already, capitalization practices have altered in some of these domains - a lower-case 'i' for 'I' is commonly seen in emails, for example. I think we must expect to see some quite major changes in capitalization practice over the next few years.

fizzog said...

There's more on capitalization at

The Ridger, FCD said...

Surely "atheist" with a small letter because it's not a religion. It's not even a school of thought (like, say, Stoicism). Being one, I would never write Atheist unless ordinary rules of capitalization required it.