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Let's hope we've all learned our Lesson

S
how me most anybody's resume, most any restaurant menu, most any personal Web site, and I'm likely to cringe at a phenomenon I call arbitrary capitalization.

It's not really arbitrary; in fact, there's usually a pretty well-defined logic to it. It's almost like the German language, in which all nouns are capitalized. Arbitrary cappers don't cap all nouns, but they do cap the nouns they consider important:

  • I studied Ballet for two years.
  • His passion was Chess.
  • Prime Rib of Beef served with a Beurre Blanc sauce.
  • He majored in Omnipresence and minored in Philately.
There's nothing particularly insidious about all this, but I would like to believe most of the perpetrators know deep down that it's wrong.

Beurre blanc is white butter; it's not White Butter. (Cap'n John's Rootin' Tootin' Make-Your-Eyeballs-Explode Crab Seasoning, to pull one example from thin air, would be another matter altogether.) And philately (well, let's make that engineering) is a subject, a field of study, an endeavor. That doesn't make it a proper noun. Now, Engineering 101 would make sense capitalized, as a course title. So would Fundamentals of Engineering or even Advanced Engineering, though the latter would have to be very clearly stated as a course title to avoid raising my eyebrow.

On the Web, I came across an author's fascinating account of the gory details of getting a book published. In an otherwise well-founded rant about ham-handed work by a copy editor, he writes, "She bashed 'the Space Shuttle' down to 'the space shuttle' instead of visiting www.nasa.gov." Uh, right, pal -- let's take all our usage cues from the federal government. NASA also capitalizes Astronauts, just as the Frito-Lay site capitalizes Potato Chips. The appeal-to-authority fallacy won't win you a capital letter.

To review, capital letters (aside from sentence beginnings, titles, headlines in up-style newspapers and the like) are reserved for proper nouns. And you know how testy I get about non-capped proper nouns, as the next Sharp Points entry makes clear.

I must confess, by the way, that as a member of the Ironic Postmodern Generation, I have a tendency to capitalize Grand Concepts, which usually translates to Concepts That Aren't Really Grand but Pretend to Be. This habit, annoying as it may be, has Nothing to Do with arbitrary capitalization.


Now what?

Move on to EDITORS' ENEMIES

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