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Friday, October 19, 2007

Give me the strength to lay this burden down

Today's Episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Extraneous Capitalization.

You Probably Know What I'm Talking About. Not Just Eckler's Fondness For One. Word. Sentences. But Something Even Worse: Sentences With Randomly-Capitalized Words.

A reader sent me a special request about this yesterday. She cannot stand these offenses against grammar, and actually took notes about the lousy signs as she was riding home from work. A few of the worst:

  • Positions Perfect for University and College Students
  • Avoid the Back-to-School Parking Crunch
    More Services from Strathcona Station
    Try a Local Bus Route
  • "All Your Automotive Needs" (Is this a cruel joke?)
I'm not sure why people like to use capital letters, but I do have a theory. People notice that titles are capitalized, like "Mayor Guiliani". They assume that if something's important, it must need a capital letter. That's why I spend my days editing documents that look like this:

Losing her Children last Week apparently woke Britney Spears up to the Fact that she needs to Change her Ways. It turns out that all this time Britney had no Natural Maternal Instincts. Really? I thought using your kid’s head as an Ashtray was as natural as Breast-Feeding. Who knew?

Okay, so I don't maintain a celebrity blog, so I don't actually edit anything like this. The documents I have to edit usually end with "before turning the gun on himself". Or, to be more specific, "before turning the Gun on himself".

If Little Miss Know-it-All can teach you nothing else, let it be this: Punctuation marks and capital letters are not mere decoration to be sprinkled into a document to make it look important. There are actual rules that will tell you how to use these things. Even if Russell Smith, grammarian for the common man, has claimed that they amount to "mystifying thickets of technical language", the rules still exist.

A good rule of thumb is that you need a reason to use a capital letter. You do not put capital letters on words to show that they are important. You only put them on the following types of words:

The first word in a sentence. Like this. Or this. See how easy that was?

Emphasized words. LIKE THIS, YOU MORON.

Proper names and titles, but not general descriptors. A proper name refers to one person. JUST TO ONE PERSON. For example, Dan might be a lieutenant. That would make him Lieutenant Dan. Or Jody might be a doctor. That would make her Dr. Jody.The same rules apply to proper nouns: it's just a bridge unless it's the Golden Gate Bridge or some other bridge with a name.

Countries and languages. In Canada, we speak French and English, and we go dutch on french fries and danishes. See what I did there? A word that's capitalized in one context (languages) can be un-capitalized in a different context (general descriptors).

The major words in book, play, or song titles. "Return of the King" and so on. Usually in this case, you don't put capital letters on "a", "of", "to", "the" and so on, unless it's the first word in the title.

Names of days or months. Do you really need an example here? I suppose if you don't know how to use capital letters, you might.

People who actually get excited about grammar (unlike SOME wannabes I can think of) know there is a seething underbelly of discontent about the use of capital letters and punctuation in brand names. For example, did I buy my jeans at GAP or at The Gap? (Answer: Neither. Their pants are made for women without hips.) But Michael plays with Legos, not LEGO brand blocks, and Glen doesn't live in "Saskatchewan!".


Anonymous said...

YoU're cRaZY! RanDoMLy cApiTalIZed woRds ArE TeH bOMb!

Megan said...

Hey, that looks like it could be some sort of secret code.

Cindy said...

Hey, I have hips and I bought my jeans at the Gap! (Don't tell me I still have a gut but no longer have hips?)

Karan said...

Thank you, Megan.

Can you please write one about people who use no capitals at all?
This problem is particularly apparent in electronic mail correspondence (shift key, anyone?). I find that equally annoying, perhaps even moreso, but I could not possible craft anything as instructional as you!

Karen said...

I object. If Glen is truly excited about his place of residence, he might live in Saskatchewan! Otherwise, on a dull day, it is still a proper name in need of a capital letter, if not extraneous punctuation.

As for Michael's playthings, if they are not LEGO brand blocks, then they are not Legos at all, but just generic building block toys. You're not going to argue about Scotch tape and making Xeroxes, instead of cello tape and photocopies, are you? ARE YOU??