Tuesday 30 June 2009

On studying history/History

A correspondent writes to report a school argument about whether a subject area should be capitalized or not. Is it: 'There'll be exams in History and Geography' or '... history and geography'? Opinion was split.

I'm not surprised. Capitalization is one of those areas very much subject to fashion and change. As Fowler once said, long ago, 'the use of capitals is largely governed by personal taste'. Some people overcapitalize; some undercapitalize.

It isn't usually a contentious issue when the reference is to a unique entity, such as an individual name. But generic notions always pose problems, and subject names fall into that category. Here, capitalization is primarily used either to draw special attention to a notion or to avoid ambiguity. An example of the latter would be: You'll find History on the third floor (ie the department) and You'll find history in the library (ie the subject). A capital is obligatory when talking about a specific notion, such as a course or exam paper, e.g. History 231.

But fashion always rules. For the past few years there's been a noticeable trend towards graphical simplicity - B.B.C. becoming BBC, and the like - and capitals have been affected. You'll find far more in newspapers of a few decades ago. And where there is an option, as in subject names, the trend has been to avoid caps. This is the advice of the main copy-editing style guides, and usage generally concurs, at present.


baralbion said...

As in the style of The Economist: ‘Gordon Brown, a British prime minister’. Or the Sunday Times, as I reported here: http://tinyurl.com/nz4smf. (These examples also raise the possibly mischievous use of the indefinite article.)

vp said...

I have an impression that British English seems more prone to capitalization of nouns ("the Committee", "the Charity", etc.) than US English, but don't have time right now to back it up with some examples. Perhaps others can comment.

maggie_wc said...

that reminds me of some interesting words:(places)China vs china; Turkey vs turkey; Shanghai vs shanghai. (names)Jordan vs jordan; Carol vs carol; Smith vs smith. etc. it would be even funnier if sby called Smith is really a smith. does anyone knows any?

DC said...

Once upon a time they all were, of course.

Mike Church said...

Thank you, david ;)

I have similar doubts with job titles - director or Director? John Smith, Director v. our director, John Smith ... - but at least there are several excellent style guides out there that can usually answer my questions.

As an employer, I despair when I receive applications from candidates that begin, "dear mr church i am writing to apply for the position of english teacher...", but my younger colleagues say I need to get with it. And don't even get me started on "Yours sincerely" v. "Yours faithfully", for which in my day we learnt the rule, "Put 'sincerely' if you know the name; put 'faithfully' if you don't." Nowadays, the rule seems to be, "Put whatever you like, but if in doubt, put 'Cheers'. I daresay 'Big Ears' will follow in a few years from now.

The SMS generation: no respect for punctuation at all!

director of studies and part-time english preacher

Yousef Al-Bader (Kuwait) said...

I was searching for the suffix (-onyms) and its sisters, and I found that there is such a technical word called Capitonym. That is a word that changes its meaning (and sometimes pronunciation) when it is capitalized, and usually applies to capitalization due to proper nouns or eponyms.

Further examples can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitonym

DC said...

It's not so much a lack of respect for punctuation which is the issue here, but more a lack of awareness of the stylistic norms of different varieties. Something has certainly gone wrong in the education of someone who thinks it's appropriate to write a letter in the way you describe.

In fact, studies are showing that text messages contain a fair bit of punctuation, including an overuse (from a traditional point of view) at times, as when we see such usages as 'yes!!!!!!' What the internet is showing us is which bits of the punctuation system are really important for the conveying of meaning and which aren't. We mustn't forget that, when English began, in Anglo-Saxon times, there was no punctuation in the modern sense at all.

Clare Lynch said...

Of course, we all know that in the corporate world the quickest way to seem impressive is to capitalise all the nouns you think are important, as in "the Firm's Diversity Strategy has enabled it to attract more Talent". Yuck.

DC said...

Very 18th century!

gigglepeppers said...

I find it interesting that the BBC in Italian newspapers is Bbc and the Democratic Party Pd... it seems strange that their formal writing permits this, but I'm not fluent enough to know the reason behind this.