There's a lot more to capitalization than you think

Hurrah for capital letters! Every time we correctly capitalize in English, we salute the genius of Western civilization. Students who understand this principle can learn capitalization in a fraction of the time it takes them to wade through a tedium of rules. Students from the Orient have a more difficult time of it: They point out that their written languages have no capital letters. Yet they can learn much faster this way too.

What is the theme or themes which link the many rules of capitalization together?

A modern impulse to simplification in recent decades led university presses and other arbiters of style to reduce the use of capitals to a minimum. But the tendency in our civilization to abandon principles for rules and technicalities everywhere has obscured the themes that organize most of our capital letters into a capital unity.

Those themes are uniqueness and distinction.

Any person, place, or thing being regarded or treated as a separate and distinct individual is entitled to his or her or its name in capital letters. There may be thousands of John Smiths and Jane Joneses, but each one is separate and distinct -- in fact, unique. The same goes for Cape Cod ro Dodge City, Kan.

We write "the Dodgers," capital D, but not if we speak of "the major league baseball team in the city limits of Los Angeles," or "one of the three major league teams in southern California." Now we're not regarding that ball club as a unique entity, but as one of a class or category.

There's a catch in the last paragraph with "southern California." Newspapers in that subregion generally put a capital on "Southern." They even speak of the area as "the Southland," capital S. Yet periodicals elsewhere would never write "Southern California."

Variation of perspective gives us a useful bridge from the principle of uniqueness to the related principle of distinction. I teach in a classroom referred to on campus as the Stone Hut, capital S, capital H. It is a venerable building with a colorful history.But an uninvolved visitor -- if he referred to the building in writing -- would simply write "stone hut." It wouldn't have any particular distinction for him, nor would the hut's uniqueness impress him either.

Now that we're into distinction, let's look at an election-year example. Almost anywhere in the US -- no matter how one may feel about the incumbent -- to write "the President" is to mean the head of this North American country. A charge leveled at alleged chauvinists in the Boston area -- that an unqualified "the President" for them refers to the head of Harvard University -- is a flimsy exception to the rule, or simple satire.

Other distinctions in most English texts can raise a word to the status of a first-letter capital. For example, "the Senator" would be appropriate in referring specifically to Kennedy of Massachusetts or Dole of Kansas or to any of the other senators as individuals. High or honored office has distinction. But we speak of "two senators debating a bill," a phrase which takes note of neither their uniqueness nor distinction.

We've already referred to that irritating fact of law and life: exceptions, borderline cases, irksome details that banish our honest minds from the comfort of terrestrial absolutes.

An interesting example in English is the seasons of the year vs. the 12 months. It helps us to remember to capitalize months because several are named after Roman gods and goddesses (including a couple of deified Caesars, July-us and August-us).

Yet logic hardly helps us if we do what most "correct" writers do: Keep winter, spring, summer, and autumn in lower case. I do recall that a widely circulated, well-regarded newspaper, the Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tenn., persisted in capitalizing the seasons, perhaps for consistency of principle. But my own experience tells me it must be a virtually unique case.

This brings us to another important reality about capitalization. Particular rules vary a little from newspaper to newspaper, publishing house to publishing house, region to region. There seems to be an irrepressible will-to-uniqueness in just about every complicated entity that partakes of life.

People -- including students -- need to know this. We want neither slaves of pedantry, nor misguided rebels against principles, which they misunderstand as a bunch of meaningless technicalities.

Maybe the most valuable lesson from capitalization is the evidence it gives of the honor our culture pays to what is individual, special, personal, and unique. Have we been forgetting this? It is the genius of our civilization.

To individuality, we owe what is best in our way of life. Polls of public opinion might not agree (public opinion is more changeable than the weather, anyway), but many if not most of the wise persons we read and read about, generation after generation, reach the ever-growing consensus that individuals whose life and thought are distinctive and unique are the unending source of human progress.

As heirs of Western civilization -- and this distinction is beginning to apply to the whole world -- all of us are or can be in some measure such individuals ourselves.

[Editor's note: Already Mr. McMillin's capital suggestions have caused considerable controversy at the Monitor's copy desk. Hence we freely issue a warning to our student readers: Following these rules of capitalization may be hazardous to your grade-point average.]

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