“Capitalization and punctuation.” How many times did English teachers write that on our papers? We still haven’t learned. Most adults remember to capitalize the right things – proper names, days of the week, specific geographic locations – but what do you capitalize erroneously? I bet, if you go back and look at the last thing you wrote, you’ll find some word you blessed with a capital letter that doesn’t warrant it. I know this because I still find random capitalizations in my own writing, and I’m the writer! Here are seven things we needlessly capitalize:
I would like to be a Writer, but I’m just a writer. Unless words like “doctor” directly precede a person’s name, they are always lowercase. So, it’s like this: “She is a doctor,” but “I saw Doctor Sangi yesterday.”
I have a degree in child development, not in Child Development. Even if one’s degree is held in high esteem in the professional world and took blood, sweat and tears to complete, it’s all the same in the eyes of English. It’s a “bachelor of science in microbiology” or a “master’s degree in psychology.”
Plant Names & Animal Breeds
Plant lovers are inclined to write of Lavender or Rosemary, but these are common plant names. So, unless you name your lavender “George,” it and the rosemary get lowercase letters. Similarly, “golden retriever” is all lowercase, but if the breed includes a proper noun like “English setter,” the proper noun part is capitalized.
Names of Seasons
This one always trips me up, because the seasons seem like proper names, but, according to every English authority, they are treated as descriptors of parts of the year. Thus, “we feel spring approaching, and winter is almost over.” Exception: If it’s part of a proper name, like “Winter Olympics” the season is capitalized.
Our Own Special Things
This is the most ubiquitous error I see. When something feels important to us, even if we know better, we grace it with a capital letter. Someone whose specialty is interior design may automatically capitalize not only the profession but words of import for their specialty, like “contemporary” or “mid-century.” We have to check ourselves here; reread carefully and google* it if you’re not sure.
Unless it’s a language, like English or Spanish, school subjects are all lowercase, from “anatomy” to “zoology.” When they are specific course titles, however, they become proper nouns, for example: “Biology 101” or “Early American History.”
Titles of books are capitalized, but we humans must stick to lowercase, whether you are the secretary or the vice president. It gets a little more complicated when you attach it to someone’s name, though. So, it’s “the vice president, Amanda Smith” but “Vice President Amanda Smith.” In the second version, it is treated as part of her name.
The bottom line: proper nouns are capitalized, common nouns are not, no matter how special we feel about those common nouns. The trick is to tease out which one you’re dealing with. So, go easy on the capitalization, even though there’s no longer an English teacher to scribble bright red corrections all over your writing. And, if you miss all that red ink, or if this very brief look into the arbitrary world of grammar makes your head hurt, contact me or visit my home page. I can help.
* Interestingly, (to me, at least) there is no consensus on capitalization of “google” used as a verb. As a noun, it is always proper, so…”I heard Google changed their algorithm,” but as for “If you wanna know, google it,” capitalization is up to you.