Tuesday, 22 May 2012

On capitalizing/Capitalizing

Two correspondents write in the same week worrying about capital letters. The first, working in ELT, has noted that many people write Past Perfect rather than past perfect (and likewise for other names of tenses). Which is it, he wonders? The second, working in the building industry, wants to know how to deal with such sentences as Wet rot has been noted in the door frame (photograph 2). Should it be (Photograph 2), given that a caption to the photograph, typically placed at the end of a report, would be either PHOTOGRAPH 2 or Photograph 2?

This issue has come up before on this blog: see On studying history/History. I made the point there that capitalization is a highly variable matter, influenced by personal taste, graphic aesthetics, and social trends, so there is never a hard-and-fast rule for examples like these. Devising a capitalization policy was one of the trickiest things I had to do when editing the Cambridge Encyclopedia family in the 1990s. You can read the relevant remarks in a paper in English Today I did in 1990, which I paraphrase now:

'The problem is one of gradience, from the clear-cut case where we are talking about a unique person, place or thing, to cases where we are talking about the class of entities. Thus, we have President Kennedy, at one extreme, and The country is governed by a president, at the other. But there are many intermediate cases.'

And I give a list of some of them, all taken from the Encyclopedia. Which would you choose and why?

...charity, founded in 1919, and having as its president/President the Princess Royal...
...Indian philosopher, statesman, and president/President...
...the country's first president/President...
...US Republican statesman and 40th president/President...
...the domestic policies of US president/President Roosevelt...
...a department responsible to the president/President for the conduct of...
...and his successor as president/President (1989)...
...led to his being elected president/President of the colony...
...the constitution of 1987 provided for a president/President...
...chairman of the Hawker Siddeley Group from 1935, and president/President from 1963...
...as president/President of the provisional government...
...the first president/President of the Royal Academy (1768)...
...and became the only president/President to be re-elected three times...
...he became president/President of the National Union of Mineworkers...

There are subtle constraints at work here. Context seems important. Thus, Indian President is more acceptable than Indian philosopher and President, and I doubt whether anyone would go for Indian Philosopher and President. The implied importance conveyed by a capital letter makes President of the United States more likely in a general reference work than President of the National Union of Mineworkers. The 'general' is important, as in publications emanating from the NUM the opposite priority would probably be encountered. And a provisional government presidency, being only provisional, might not merit capitals at all.

What is clear is that no simple principle will work for all cases. 'All official titles should be capitalized' says one house-style manual on my shelves. But does this work?

He became Emperor of Rome.
He became Emperor of all lands west of...
He was crowned Emperor.
He acted as Emperor.

Or take academic titles. Dennis Gabor, for example, was a professor of physics, but one could not write this as Professor of Physics, for this was not his title: he was in actual fact Professor of Applied Electron Physics. To refer to his official role briefly, as general reference books often do, one would have to avoid capitals altogether (unless one accepted Professor of physics).

So, to return to my correspondents... The typical semantic function of a capital letter is to draw attention to an item of special significance, such as a proper name or personification, or to Make an Important Comment. The usage variation raised by my first correspondent arises because people will have different views about what is 'specially significant'. In an ELT context, I can easily imagine some teachers seeing tense forms as being so important that they feel the need to give them special graphic prominence, as she mentions. But not everyone will see them in this way. Personally, I wouldn't capitalize. Tense forms are so frequently mentioned in a grammar book that the capital letters would turn up all over the place, reducing their attention-drawing function, as well as adding to the visual clutter of the page. It is a slippery slope. Present Progressive... Third Person Singular Present Progressive...

The problem facing my second correspondent is different, for it introduces the discourse function of capitalization, to mark identity throughout a text so that readers are left in no doubt that the same item is being referenced - that is, the repeated use of a particular word needs to be consistently capitalized. This is especially important with cross references, such as that illustrated by the photograph example, and seen also in The point is dealt with in chapter/Chapter 3 and suchlike.

The reason for my correspondent's doubt is that there is a clash between the two types of function in her example. A cross reference is not, by its nature, of special semantic significance, so there is no real reason for using an initial capital. On the other hand, the caption to the photograph does use an initial capital, so this motivates the parallel use of a capital in the parenthesis. When semantic significance (no need for a capital) clashes with discourse significance (need for a capital), semantics usually wins. If there's no special reason for drawing attention, the general view would be not to use a capital letter.

But style books vary, especially over time. Fashion is a critical factor: in the late 17th and early 18th century, for example, virtually any noun would be capitalized. And there are regional differences: American English uses capitals far less than British English - a preference that may well have originated in dictionary practice (the original OED having all headwords beginning with a capital, unlike the typical American convention). On the whole, the advice in style guides is 'If in doubt, don't capitalize'. But above all: 'Be consistent, whatever you decide to do'.

6 comments:

mollymooly said...

American English uses capitals far less than British English

although broadsheet newspaper headlines use more capitals in the US than in the UK.

John Cowan said...

Martin Haspelmath and like-minded people use capitals to distinguish between universal semantic and language-specific morphological forms in linguistic jargon. Thus, he could write something like "In English, the Present of most verbs does not express the present, but the future or habitual; the present is normally expressed by the Present Progressive." (Not an actual quotation.)

AndrewO said...

"There's Pooh," he thought to himself. "Pooh hasn't much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they out right. There's Owl. Owl hasn't exactly got Brain, but he Knows Things. He would know the Right Thing to Do when Surrounded by Water. There's Rabbit. He hasn't Learnt in Books, but he can always Think of a Clever Plan..."

TonyTheProf said...

Quite a bit of Victorian / Edwardian writing on religious matters uses "Reason" rather than "reason". Interestingly this can have an effect on the way their argument is presented as "Reason" becomes almost a "personality" or Platonic form in the way in which it is used.

Joshwooly said...

As a 20 year student, I've often noticed capitalisations on status posts on social networks. Just browsing through my Blackberry messenger updates, I've already spotted a status that says: "I've Got A Mind Of My Own", and before reading this post I wondered why people capitalised each word if there was no special reason for drawing attention. After reading this post, however, I established that "capitalisation is a higly variable matter, influenced by personal taste, graphic aesthetics, and social trends..." So, now my mind is at rest I can finally say Thank You.

Joshwooly said...

As a 20 year student, I've often noticed capitalisations on status posts on social networks. Just browsing through my Blackberry messenger updates, I've already spotted a status that says: "I've Got A Mind Of My Own", and before reading this post I wondered why people capitalised each word if there was no special reason for drawing attention. After reading this post, however, I established that "capitalisation is a higly variable matter, influenced by personal taste, graphic aesthetics, and social trends..." So, now my mind is at rest I can finally say Thank You.