Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Capitalising on Capitals

As a writer you are probably often wondering: to capitalise or not to capitalise? Clearly there are some areas of confusion, as well as some grey areas. I would suggest looking at one of the major style guides for directions on this, but I will highlight a few common issues here.

‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ (and their variants, as well as similar terms) are among those that writers often get wrong. Do we use upper case here, or not? Always, or only sometimes? There is a fairly simple rule or guidelines here. If ‘Mum’ is used in the place of the person’s name, use upper case; if it is used generically, use lower case. A good way of testing this is to substitute the name. Consider this example: ‘The other day I went with Dad to the zoo.’ My dad’s name is ‘George’, so: ‘The other day I went with George to the zoo.’ Clearly ‘Dad’ here takes the place of the name ‘George’. But consider this: ‘The other day I went with my dad to the zoo.’ If we substitute the name: ‘The other day I went with my George to the zoo.’ Clearly this doesn’t work. (Note: there are a few places, particularly in the UK, where people do sometimes speak about ‘our George’, or ‘my George’; but this is not the norm.)

This rule also holds for other titles, such as ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’. It starts to get a little grey when we think of other titles or terms of endearment. For example: ‘Are you ready for bed, sweetheart.’ Should this be ‘Sweetheart’? It is, after all, used in place of the person’s name. But we are unlikely to say, ‘I went to the shops with sweetheart,’ unless this is actually used as a nickname. We would almost certainly say: ‘I went to the shops with my sweetheart.’ So, as a general guideline, I would suggest not using upper case for these kinds of endearments or titles (this includes ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’).

A similar rule applies to official titles. When used in conjunction with the name, the title should be capitalised. Thus: ‘I went with Captain [or Doctor] Smith to the zoo.’ It should also be capitalised when used as a form of address: ‘How are you, Captain [Doctor]?’ But it should not be capitalised when used generically. ‘After Captain [Doctor] Smith and I went to the zoo, the captain [doctor] had to rush back to the base.’ There are some grey areas where we are not entirely sure whether a word represents an official title. For example, is ‘postman’ a title? Should it be capitalised in a sentence like this: ‘I went with Postman Pat to the zoo.’ (Yes, I know you must be thinking I spend a great deal of time at the zoo.) If so, then what about ‘milkman’? Perhaps to avoid ambiguity we might find a way to reword cases such as these: ‘I went to the zoo with the postman, Pat.’

Another area of interest is brand names. Official brand names and trademarks should always be capitalised, unless... And here it becomes a little grey again. In some cases, brand names have assumed a generic character. In the USA (I believe) people often refer to any vacuum cleaner as a ‘hoover’, even though ‘Hoover’ is actually a brand name. In fact, ‘to hoover’ is now a verb. In such a case, the capital can probably be dropped, unless quite specifically referring to that brand. When this transition occurs is where all that greyness creeps in, and perhaps it is best to err on the side of caution. In Australia, we refer to pretty much any container in which to keep things cool as an ‘esky’, even though this is, in fact, a brand name. We similarly refer to a bottle in which to keep things warm as a ‘thermos’—again a brand name. Perhaps these should be capitalised. Or perhaps we could use a different term: ‘cooler’, instead of ‘esky’, for instance. ‘Coke’ is one I come across quite often. It is often used generically to refer to any similar cola drink. I think, however, that the Coca Cola Company still very much regard this as their trademark. ‘Coke’, I would suggest, should be capitalised if it is referring to that particular brand of cola, while ‘cola’ can be used as a generic term.

What about animal names? This also causes people headaches. Should I capitalise ‘woodpecker’? Not unless I am also going to capitalise ‘dog’, ‘cat’, ‘tiger’ and every other noun referring to a type of animal. These are generic terms, and should not be capitalised. The same holds for breeds of dog and cat, etc. It is ‘cocker spaniel’, not ‘Cocker Spaniel’. The exception to this is if one of the words is a word we would otherwise normally capitalise, such as a place name. Thus it is ‘German shepherd’, rather than ‘german shepherd’ (or ‘German Shepherd’). The dictionary can often help here. For the more scientifically minded among my readers, the scientific name of an animal (or plant or bacteria, and so on) should be written in italics, giving the first word (the genus) an initial capital, but not the second word (the species). (Sometimes there are also subspecies names, but let’s not get too technical.) Thus a tiger is Panthera tigris.

I sense that some of the writers whose work I have edited have given up on this, and have opted for a more random approach. Hang in there! There are rules and guidelines which can help you through this maze. And in those grey areas I will leave you with two words: be consistent.

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