Working With Words: Cap It Right

    How difficult can it be to remember to capitalize the beginning of a sentence, the word “I,” “O” used as an interjection, or a proper noun? Seems easy enough, yet sometimes it’s not. Here’s what you may have forgotten from ninth grade English.
Titles. Here’s a rule I’ve written in the front of my Chicago Manual of Style: CAP. It helps that this acronym is also the nickname of my high school flame—in case I need to remember it at the class reunion. In this case, however, it helps me remember what words to capitalize in a title or header: everything except Conjunctions (and, but), Articles (the, a, an) and Prepositions (in, on, by, with, over and all those other words that link an object to another word in the sentence to show the relationship between them). Of course, this is English so there must be exceptions. The first word always gets capped, no matter what it is. This includes the first word following a colon. And, a conjunction or a preposition of more than five letters is capped.  Conjunctions to be capped include although, because, however. Prepositions that would be capped in a title include against, alongside, because of, beneath, excepting, in addition to, in spite of, regarding, throughout, toward. Fortunately titles and headers tend to be short so remembering CAP plain and simple is usually enough.
    Now, what to cap in hyphenated words when they are titles? The first word gets a cap, the second word is capped only if it is a noun or adjective, or is as important as the first word: Through the Looking-Glass, How to Make-up Your Mind.
    Proper Nouns and Adjectives.  Proper nouns name specific persons, places, and things: Shakespeare, Asheville, Highway 74. Proper adjectives are formed from proper nouns: Shakespearean, Ashevillean. Because some words can be either proper or common, we have to ask whether or not it refers to a specific person, place, or thing. For example, the Democratic Party, but the democratic government.    
Many words writers forget to cap are trade names, especially those which have come into common usage. You can be prosecuted for trademark infringement, so beware. They stopped for a Coke. She reached for a Kleenex. They hired a Realtor. He bought a Xerox machine. In print it’s best to use the word copy to avoid using Xerox as a verb or adjective as in I Xeroxed the handout or I made Xeroxed copies. Over time, some words like nylon or thermos that began as trade names have lost their brand association and are not capitalized. When in doubt, check it out.
    Internet and Web are capped because they are specific, whereas website is not because it’s general. Caucasian and Afro-American are capped because they refer to specific races, whereas blacks and whites are generalized categories. Capitalize directions only when they refer to specific regions: I moved to the Southeast from the west coast. And lastly, leave the capitalization of the seasons to the poets.
    These comprise the essentials of capitals. The Little, Brown Handbook takes five pages to cover all the rules. I was put onto the topic by Marika Olsen who showed me the website http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/default.aspx.  This is a great site that offers exactly what it says—quick and dirty tips for better writing.

Copyright 2008   Peggy Tabor Millin    Working With Words

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