Ins and outs of the ups and downs

I continue to learn from the questions my colleagues ask. A simple question about whether to capitalize a phrase in a magazine article prompted me to think about the role of the media in holding governments and other powerful actors to account.

An e-mail arrived the other day from the editor of a magazine I've been working with: "You sure about this? 'National anthem' isn't capitalized?"

Yes, I'm sure. At least I think I'm sure.

The context was a feature article previewing an equestrian competition to be held in one of the communities the magazine covers. An informational sidebar detailing the timeline of events was included, and "National Anthem" was an item on the program.

Using the "track changes" feature of Microsoft Word, the 21st-century equivalent of the blue pencil of yore, I had "taken down" the "N" and "A," as editors say. (It's not as violent as it sounds.)

But the editor's query sent me to my dictionary – where I got no particular guidance. A quick search of the phrase on Google News, though, confirmed that most of the better papers had it "down," so I felt vindicated.

The editor's question made me think further, though: The event was likely to have a printed program conveying much of the same timeline as in our little sidebar. And there, "national anthem" and other phrases would surely be capped. And it struck me that that would be OK.

Why so? I let the wheels turn a little longer, and here's what I came up with: Uppercasing and lowercasing is one of the ways the fourth estate speaks truth to power. The news media in their various forms often lowercase words that government officials or corporate spinmeisters want capitalized.

Lowercasing words that powerful people want capped can be a kind of guerrilla action in favor of public accountability – not as big a deal, perhaps, as asking tough questions at press conferences or conducting in-depth investigations, but worth doing nonetheless.

"Up or down?" is one of those questions that occupy a surprisingly large amount of space in the head of a copy editor. To cap – capitalize – or not?

The very broad trend is "down." Sometime during the Reagan years we dropped the rule of capping "President," even when it appeared without a name, if it referred to the American president. This let us avoid the rather undiplomatic effect of a sentence such as, "The President and the prime minister met for two hours in the Oval Office."

But we lost the opportunity to have a space-saving way of differentiating between the President of the United States and, let's say, the president of the Citizens' Committee to Protect the Raspberry Patch on the Backside of Prospect Hill Park.

One of the ways that spinmeisters control the terms of a public debate is by coining specific names for initiatives, campaigns, and the like that the media have to cap, because they're proper names.

The specific code names the Department of Defense comes up with, for example, more or less require capitalization, just as personal names do. "The Iraq war" is still lowercased in the Monitor and many other publications, but "Operation Enduring Freedom," the US government's name for its military response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is "up," as are other such code names.

At this point I should note that although there's been a broad trend toward "down" styles, there's a countertrend of individual items making their way into "up" status over time.

Long after the code name "Operation Enduring Freedom" has faded from most people's memory, I can imagine, the Iraq war will be calcified into history as the Iraq War.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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