Capitalization

Capital Letters. The bane of my existence. Certainly, the basic rules of when to capitalize a word are simple enough. The first word in a sentence. Proper nouns, such as people’s names, cities, states, and countries. The names of a language, such as English, Italian, Chinese. Names of ages in human history, such as the Bronze Age or the Ming Dynasty. Names of gods and religions. These things all make sense. Then we fall into a vast pit of weirdness where English capitalization is concerned.

I think that Russian people are dead sexy.
I think the russian dressing on my salad is dead sexy.

My spell check hates that second sentence, but it is correct. My salad dressing, no matter how culturally named, does not directly pertain to the country of Russia, and therefore is not capitalized. Neither are french fries, or french windows. (This is very annoying to write, as I keep having to stop my word program from auto-correcting.) Don’t believe me? Look up french fry on Merriam Webster.

It was the first Saturday of spring.

Why? Why, oh why, are days of the week and months capitalized, but seasons are not? I haven’t a clue, but that is the way it is.

Did any of you realize that names of films, books, pieces of music, etc, are perfectly legitimate in one of two different forms?
A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite books.
A confederacy of dunces is one of my favorite books.
I imagine that if I were to write the second form in any of my stories, I would get a thousand comments telling me that it isn’t correct, but it still is.

I need to use the Xerox machine. I need to xerox twelve copies of this blog post.
My auto correct didn’t like that one either, but if you are using a brand name as a verb, you shouldn’t capitalize it.

Then we fall further down the rabbit hole.

If you are writing about flora, the rule is fairly clear. Common names, such as dogwood, daisy, and cottonwood are not capitalized unless a proper name is used in the name, such as Jack-in-the-pulpit. Scientific names are capitalized; Cornus florida is the scientific name for flowering dogwood. Cornus is the genus, and thus capitalized. “Florida” has nothing to do with the U. S. state, but rather it is the species, “flowering,” and thus not capitalized. As a rule, capitalize the first term but no others.
Same goes for fauna. Common names are not capitalized unless there is a proper noun involved. Thus we have red-tailed-hawk, and Siberian tiger. Scientific names follow the same rule as flora, capitalize the genus but not the species.

Animal breeds are similar. You have a cocker spaniel, not a Cocker Spaniel. You also have a Labrador retriever, a Welsh corgi, a Siamese cat, and a Thoroughbred horse. Boy, you have a real menagerie going on! How do you feed them all? When in doubt, look it up, as there are a ton of exceptions to the general rule of “it’s not capitalized unless there’s a proper noun involved.” And if you happen to be a dog breeder or someone involved with the American Kennel Club then you capitalize all sorts of words that no one else does. The AKC would capitalize “cocker spaniel,” but the New York Times would not.

Interestingly enough, you’ll find the same sort of break between ornithologists (folks who study birds) and the rest of the writing world. Ornithologists capitalize all the words, while we non-ornithologists use the normal punctuation rules.

There are, of course, many more oddities and exceptions in the wild and zany world of capitalization. For instance, one talks about the Theatre, but one sees a play in a theatre building. Unfortunately, my patience for this subject is at an end. When in doubt, look it up, but don’t ask the ornithologists.

And don’t forget to feed your man-eating Taraxacum officinale.

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About JulianneQJohnson

I am a writer in Indiana who lives with two cats, two ferrets, and one fiance. I enjoy cheap coffee and expensive chocolate.
This entry was posted in Grammar, writing, Writing Advice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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