62. Choices with Capital Letters

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Caps

Some kinds of noun in the middle of a sentence can be used either with or without an initial capital letter

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VARIABILITY IN THE USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS

The use of capital letters is another of those very elementary topics that sometimes cause problems for advanced users of English (for others, click on “Punctuation” or “Spelling” in the CATEGORIES side menu, or go to 54. Paragraph Length). The problems generally seem to involve words that reference books like Collins Cobuild Grammar say have an “optional” need for a capital: words referring to compass positions (North/north – see 151. Ways of Using Compass Words), seasons (Summer/summer), decades (The Eighties/the eighties), and role names (Minister/minister). In this post I wish to examine two kinds of expression that may or may not be found with a capital letter, names of high-status roles/institutions and names that can also be descriptions, and to suggest some guidelines for choosing or rejecting the capital letter.

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CAPITALS IN THE NAMES OF HIGH-STATUS ROLES & INSTITUTIONS

High-status role names include minister, president, manager, head teacher, rector, bishop and chair, while high-status institution names include government, army, church, management, high court and senate. All of these names may or may not begin with a capital letter, depending on how important the role or institution is to the writer. Consider this example: 

(a) The Government have passed a new motoring law. 

The use of the capital G here probably means that the writer is saying something about his/her own government, or at least is showing unusual respect for someone else’s. For example, in an American newspaper the sentence would probably be referring to the American government. A small g, on the other hand, would indicate that the government in question was not the writer’s own. In the same way, the use of Church would suggest that the writer either belonged to the religious institution in question or at least thought it deserved special respect; while church would distance the writer from it.

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CAPITALS IN NAMES THAT CAN ALSO BE DESCRIPTIONS

The word(s) in an ordinary name will begin with a capital letter, but the words in a description will not. Names are extensively illustrated in the post 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns, while description nouns, like an extinct volcano, are considered in the post 77. Apposition. Sometimes, though, the same word(s) can be either a name or a description. One of the visitors to the Home page of this blog provided a good example when enquiring whether a corner of a playground known as the wild garden should have capital letters. The answer I gave was that it depended on whether the phrase was being used as a name or as a description. It would certainly be a description if there was another expression that was recognised as its name (e.g. Wonderland), but it would probably be a name (The Wild Garden) if there was no other way of identifying it. A major requirement for a description to become a name is perhaps the universality of its use: names are more universally used than descriptions. 

To give another example, my daughter’s family acquired a cat some years ago and did not bother to give it a name. Sometimes they referred to it as bad cat, sometimes miaow, and sometimes bird killer. However, a baby girl in the family made such a habit of using  mi-aow that the rest of the family started to follow suit, until eventually the constancy of the use caused the description to be considered the cat’s name (with a capital).

An example of a different sort is provided by the contrast between Earth (or The Earth) and earth. The former, of course refers to the world, while the latter just means “soil”. Perhaps this is not strictly a difference between a name and a description – more one between two different but related meanings of the same word (see 7. Metaphorical Meanings) – but it seems worth mentioning in this context.

There is an interesting usage in a prayer that Roman Catholic Christians say in order to demonstrate and reinforce their belief. Generally, Catholics call their church The Catholic Church – a descriptive name. However, in the prayer (whose wording is carefully controlled by the church’s authorities), the phrase is the catholic Church, with only Church capitalised. The authorities are unlikely to have made a mistake with their English here (despite my word processor suggesting they have, and hence proving again the weaknesses of computer grammar checking – see 68. & 69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong).

Removing catholic from the name forces more attention to be given to its ordinary meaning of “universal”, and at the same time makes Church a wider institutional name rather than part of a descriptive one. The changed spelling perhaps reflects a wish to refer to all Christians rather than the subgroup called The Catholic Church. The fact that non-Catholic Christians use these words in the same way in their version of the prayer offers support for this interpretation. 

Another familiar descriptive name that can also be used as an ordinary description (despite computer underlining) is New Year. Here are examples of the two uses: 

(b) A fireworks display was put on for (the) New Year.

(c) The new year will begin in January. 

The name use, illustrated by (b), refers to an event, just like Ramadan, Thanksgiving or The Olympics, while the ordinary description is implied not to be an event. Use as a name is often indicated by the ability of the noun to be used without the/a(n) or similar. 

Finally, and continuing the religious theme, a word has to be said about God/god. Is the usage with a capital letter a standard name like Mary or a respect-showing role name like The President? In fact it could be either. As a standard name, it is likely to be used by people who believe in only one god – without, of course, the/a(n) or equivalent: 

(d) God is the Supreme Being. 

Note the use here of the capital letters in Supreme Being. This expression is descriptive but not a name (the name is God). It could have its capitals because it is a respected high-status role name, but more probably the reason is a tendency of believers in God to capitalise the first letter of any word (even pronouns and adjectives) that describes or represents Him.

Using God not as a standard name but as a role name with implied respect would be common among people who believed in more than one god (or by writers who wanted to show respect for such people). In this case, there would normally be an article or a plural ending: 

(e) The Ancient Greeks worshipped Poseidon, the God of the sea.

(f) Poseidon was one of the Greek Gods. 

The god here is named Poseidon, not God, so that God is surely a status expression (and could be written with a small g). More about religious influences on English is in the post 137. Words that Reflect English Culture.

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