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Grammar Tip #2: To Cap or Not to Cap

February 6, 2012

As a lifelong editor, I’ve encountered quite a few grammatical errors, and I’ve even made a few of my own. (First rule of editing: You can never ever be perfect all the time.*) Author errors can be funny, off-handed, stupid, careless, obtuse, and common. In the latter category, I’m constantly amazed at how frequently people want to use capital letters on words that shouldn’t have them. Although not often an issue in the books I’ve edited for academic presses, this common writing error abounds in—surprise!—more common writing.

Capping nouns is a Teutonic thing, I guess, since all nouns in German get capitalized. Must be the German immigrant influence that makes aspiring writers want to see the big letters scattered throughout their copy. Or maybe they think the capital letter means it’s a more important word, gives it more emphasis. They probably text each other with caps lock on, too.

Capping on Campus

When I worked in the communications office of a local college, we regularly had to lowercase nouns in the copy that came to us. It seems everyone wanted their program or center or building to have a name, yet very few of these well-meaning individuals could create a name unique to their program or their center or their building. “Honors Program” and “Writing Center” and “Science Building” aren’t exactly specific to any one college, right? So the easiest way out of the conundrum is to give your “thing” a more unique or specific name.

The development office can help quite a bit by offering “naming opportunities,” especially for buildings and rooms. The John Smith Science Building is much more specific, so can be capped as a proper proper noun. Same with the John Smith Center for Native American Studies or the John Smith Concert Hall.

Naming opportunities don’t have to come exclusively from donors or important administrators at the college. Just about every higher ed institution in the United States has a counseling center and a dining hall and a student union. Rather than cap these generic items because they might be the only ones on that particular campus, give them proper-noun status by using the college’s name to designate which counseling center or which student union: the Smith College Counseling Center or the Smith College Student Union.

Sometimes the “thing” can be named with words more descriptive of its focus, especially if it’s a unique focus (compared to all those other “things” at other colleges). The Center for Tutorial Writing Workshops is better than the Writing Center or even the Smith College Writing Center (although I freely admit my example isn’t exactly scintillating). My former employer actually used this specificity and the donor name when unveiling the final name for their spiffy new business building.

It’s All in the Name

So where’s the meat of my tip on capping? It’s simple: If it’s a proper noun, cap it. A proper noun is someone’s name (Carnac the Magnificent), something’s name (my dog Spot). According to my dictionary of choice, a proper noun is “a noun that designates a particular being or thing [and] does not take a limiting modifier” (my emphasis). So only nouns that are specific, that are names instead of generic descriptions.

Here’s another, probably more practical tip about capping: When in doubt, don’t. And don’t forget to turn caps lock off.

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* Evidence here, here, and here.

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