Bloody Well Write

April 6, 2009

Down with capitalization aggravation!

If you want to sit around and chat with like-minded folks who are concerned with the state of the English language, especially the capitalization conundrum, you better pull up a comfy chair and get yourself (and others — hey, you’re not rude) an oversized bottle of red zin, because it’s going to be a long discussion.

In a relatively fruitless effort to be short and sweet on a subject that is neither short nor sweet, here are a few (!) AP Stylebook rules. Sit back, grab your glass and enjoy.

What needs to be initial-capped:

• Internet and Web  (when referring to the World Wide Web: Web site, Web browser), no matter where it lands in the sentence

• Places and their derivatives (America, American, Americanism)

• Days of the week and months (Thursday, Saturday, May, November)

• Organizations and their abbreviations (American Kennel Club, AKC)

• Geographic areas when referred to as areas (the Northwest, the East Coast)

• Rank, position and family relationship unless preceded by my, his, their or other possessive pronouns (President Obama, Professor H. Higgins, Uncle Albert, Dr. Doolittle)

• Most titles and works of art (initial-cap the first word, last word, each important word and each pronoun/article of four or more letters), including titles of books, plays, pamphlets, periodicals, movies, radio and television programs, operas, ballets, records, tapes, CDs, sculptures and paintings, and the names of ships, airplanes and spacecraft. Some examples follow:

•    The Chicago Manual of Style

•    “On the Road”

•    “West Side Story”

•    The New Yorker

•    “There’s Something About Mary”

•    “Seinfeld”

•    “Swan Lake”

•    “Room at Arles”

•    Voyager 2

What doesn’t:

• The seasons (winter, spring, summer, fall)

• Words that indicate direction (We flew west to get to Los Angeles)

• Family relationships w/ possessive pronouns attached (my uncle Ivan)

• Multiple titles directly in front of a person’s name, even if each title on its own would normally be uppercased (J. Crew chairman and CEO Millard Drexler)

What about headlines?

Well, friends, it may as well be a crapshoot, as far as I’m concerned. The AP Stylebook explains that headlines only get the first word initial-capped, plus any proper nouns (as in someone’s name or a specific city or such). Fine. But then I check out The Washington Post’s Web site: Its headlines show every major word uppercased. Same with The New York Times’ Web site. But then I look at the Chicago Tribune’s Web site and presto! They follow AP. Same with the Los Angeles Times. And any number of other sites have any other number of alternate capitalization options. It boils down to each company’s particular or chosen style guide.

So what’s a writer to do?

Well, if you follow AP, you have your answer: Uppercase only the first word and any proper nouns. If you say, “Pooh-pooh on AP,” then you’re left to your own grammatical devices. I don’t know exactly why some papers choose to follow AP and some go rogue; my guess would be that they either do not know better (highly, highly unlikely) or they simply choose to uppercase every major word because it looks good, more prominent — as a headline should look. Maybe old habits simply die hard. Who knows?

Here’s what I do know.

The ad agency I work at (Jajo, if you’re interested) likes the AP format. I’ve come around to being OK with that. I’ve got old-school-itis, in that the all-caps thing looks more headline-ish to me. However, I get why the fewer-caps style makes sense. After all, most headlines are meant to read like sentences, albeit stilted ones, so why not cap them accordingly?

So yes, that’s my recommendation: Initial-cap the first word and any proper nouns. No more, no less.

Warning: Diversion ahead!

I do have to moan a bit about one headline convention that I do not get: punctuation. To me, punctuation includes periods, question marks, exclamation points, etc. So if you’re not supposed to have ending punctuation marks, why do question marks squeeze in? Granted, they help make the point of the question. But it’s selective punctuation.

And worse than that, I sometimes see a headline that has two (count ’em, two) sentences; the first sentence ends with a period but the second doesn’t. Good grief! That bugs the bejeebers out of me. If anyone has the answer, by all means, leave a comment so I can learn to just let it go.

Om.

Happy trails!

SAK

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3 Comments »

  1. Maybe the Trib went to lower case after that Dewey-Truman thing. Lower case connotes less certainty. All the better to hedge one’s bets.

    Comment by steakchorizo — April 7, 2009 @ 3:19 am | Reply

  2. After reading this article, I just feel that I really need more info. Could you share some more resources ?

    Comment by Jane Goody — April 24, 2009 @ 11:15 am | Reply

    • I’m not sure which part of the entry is confusing to you, but I (and the agency I work at) follow AP Stylebook guidelines. Its Web site has an Ask the Editor section that includes commonly asked questions. You can do a search there for your particular issue or you can ask a question: http://www.apstylebook.com/.

      Another great resource is the Web site of Bill Walsh, the chief of the night desk at The Washington Post. He tends to follow AP, as well, but since AP doesn’t answer every question out there, he’s my go-to man. Check out his site: http://www.theslot.com/.

      Comment by bloodywellwrite — April 24, 2009 @ 3:14 pm | Reply


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