Bloggers Go Nuts Over Caps

37 comments about when and when not to capitalize!  What’s going on?  Must be something like the swine flu going around in cyberspace here.

I will try to address the issue in just a bit.  But I wanted to deal with a point raised by one of the Guest Bloggers:  that perhaps the AP Stylebook was no longer in wide use and that the local newspaper did notperhaps have a real stylebook.  I can’t say much about the first part of this as I have no connection, and never have had,  to the Associated Press or its longtime chief rival (what was that one’s name?),  the latter of which no longer exists.  I do know that an international association,  Reuters, is still active and influential.  I do wonder whether our “Fayetteville Observer” has a full-fledged stylebook.  I don’t recall ever seeing or possessing one. When I took on both the tasks of doing a “Sandspur” column and also simultaneously beginning (June 2006) a “Blog Site” for the newspaper, I was offered some general guidelines and suggestions, which I read quite carefully.

But, aside from that,  I have sometimes learned of guidelines in place that were not earlier offered to me in any communications, (or it may be that I forgot to remember them).  Two examples:  (1)  I was told early on that ALL CAPS was a practice not permitted in the titles of my postings, and (2) in a quite odd and awkward juxtaposition,  I learned that the “N-word” could not be used when I was discussing that quite infamous or notorious word to which the N-word refers.

Now back to two questions or issues affecting how we use the (esp. written and printed) English language in our country: (1)  usage and diction (meaning word forms [also syntax] and word choices)  and (2) capitalization–or not–of proper nouns and their verb adjuncts.

Regarding the first:  I have already recommended William Safire as a preeminent authority.  Sometimes regarded as the most significant English lexicographer in our country,  he has had published a good number of books that collect relevant information from the columns he has written for “The New York Times.”

I would also strongly recommend the 2006 “Deluxe Edition” of Robert Hartwell Fiske’s (Fiske is sometimes called “The Grumbling Grammarian”and that is a pretty accurate nickname) “The Dictionary of Disagreeable English” (2006:  Writer’s Digest Books).


Getting to the main point: when do we capitalize?  And when do we not?  Some outside guidance (maybe bucket loads of it) seems needed here.

I have already mention two very helpful authorities in this matter, and neither is the (mythical or not) “AP Stylebook.”

Henry Watson Fowler’s “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage” was published in 1926.  In spite of the fact that two other revised editions have been since published (the Second appeared in 1965 as “Revised by Sir Ernest Gowers” (this is the copy I have at hand) and the Third in two imprints (1996 and 2004) with revisions and editions by the formidable Robert W. Burchfield.

Fowler’s wit and wisdom inform his book on every page.  Harold Ross, Founding Editor of “The New Yorker” and its Editor from its founding in 1925 until his death in 1951,  regarded “Fowler” as his Bible and that also for editors and writers, and he consulted it and waved it about at every opportunity.

So what does Fowler have to say about the complex issue of capitalization?  More than I could offer here.  But a couple of points.  He did realize that American writers were in general less scrupulous about established usages here than were his peers.  He also recognized that the purpose of capitals in general (they had numerous other applications, of course) were to distinguish the particular (person, place, “thing”) from the general.

After two double-column pages of examples and advice,  he ends with this conclusion:

“If there is a method here, it is hard to discern it. Let it be repeated:  the employment of capitals is matter not of rules but of taste; but consistency is at least not a mark of bad taste.”

Finally,  I recommend very highly “The Chicago Manual of Style.”  Founded 103 years ago, it has gone through numerous editions. I have the 1982 Fourteenth Edition and have had it for about five years.  It was recommended to me by George Core,  the longtime and highly respected Editor of “The Sewanee Review.”  It is,  at 921 pages, some two hundred pages longer than the Thirteenth.

There are perhaps ninety separate listings in the Index guiding the scholar to topics related to “capitalization,”  “capitals, full,”  and “caps and small caps.”  Seventeen languages are referenced. If you want the most respected and complete authority, then, I would say that “this is your guide.” No more to be said at present.



12 Responses to “Bloggers Go Nuts Over Caps”

  1. Tammy Stephens Says:

    I truly enjoy your blog. I honestly learn from it, and your little quizzes add more interest.

    Yeah, watch out for Marshall doing that.

  2. Number Two Says:

    I appreciated the comments on your last post, Prof, as well as your suggested reading in this one. I’d like to offer up a correction on your use of the term “bloggers.” You are, in fact, the “blogger” and your faithful readers are your “blog readers” or, maybe “blogees”? You, as the sole authority and author, are the only blogger.

    I’ll also mention that both, I believe, the later editions of the AP Style Guide and Chicago Manual of Style offer suggestions on usage of (now common) words that have come into fashion since the creation of the World Wide Web (e.g., spam, netiquette, blog/blogger, etc.) There is also the poorly designed, but highly useful, Webopedia,, for finding Internet-related terminology.

  3. Daryl Cobranchi Says:

    You are, in fact, the “blogger” and your faithful readers are your “blog readers” or, maybe “blogees”?

    This misuse of the words “blog” and “blogger” are legion on the FOOL. N2 is correct: Raymond is a blogger. He writes a blog. On the blog are individual posts. I, OTOH, am a commenter. I make comments on Raymond’s blog. There are possibly lurkers around who are regular readers who don’t make comments.

    As for the rule concerning all caps in the title, that’s strictly a FOOL rule for appearance’s sake. I started using all caps in my post titles in 2002 when blogspot didn’t handle titles well. Using all caps made it easy to differentiate where the post started. After seven years, it was a hard habit to break. Ms. Garcia called me on it a couple of times.

  4. Forest Crump Says:

    Well I certainly don’t want to be capped.

  5. Lolly Says:

    Oh, the misuse of the word “blogger” on this site has always gotten under my skin!

    Bill Kirby once wrote in his column (in reference to some argumentative comments on his own blog) that “bloggers sure seem to have a lot of time on their hands.” Uh, that’s you. You are the blogger. Good grief.)

    So thank you for correcting that, Number Two!

    The Raleigh newspaper has a great blog that’s hosted by one of their copy editors. It covers this sort of thing, using examples that have come across their copy desk. Because the AP is their standard, it also gives updates on words and phrases that become AP-approved with each new edition.

    I think the benefits of reading about news writing (as opposed to academic writing) are:

    1) We all read the news every day.

    2) These blogs are hosted by newspapers, after all.

    3) News writing is blessedly brief and to-the-point.

    4) Each news source generally adheres to one style (usually AP or Chicago), so one needn’t raid an entire library shelf to settle a copy-related bet.

    Anyway, enjoy:

  6. Marshall Faircloth Says:

    I’m reading into the Perfesser’s narrative that one need not adhere strictly to any ‘style’ book to write decently if not properly.

    My freshman English guide was the Harbrace Handbook as I recall.
    The red ink, exceeding in volume my own black ink on my early English papers, was another quite poignant lesson in style and usage.

  7. Jeff Thompson Says:

    My recollection of the AP style guide is that it makes recommendations on sentence structure and content rather than grammer and usage. For example back in the day a newspaper would never use the proper name of an automobile involved on a traffic accident. These days, the Observer and other media use proper names all the time. The style guide’s point was that whether a car was a Ford of a Chevrolet wasn’t revelant to the story.

  8. Susan Says:

    Your title was misleading.

    protocol for early machine mail was brief and unpunctuated WITH no capitals unless SCREAMING FOR ATTENTION WAS REQUIRED

    reading from your original link, it would appear spell checkers were used but not edited by the authors

  9. Lolly Says:


    Your recollection of AP style is inaccurate. It includes advice on everything from how to abbreviate a state name, to when to hyphenate adjectives, to why we should say “more than” instead of “over” a number.

    Seriously, no one has one of these books lying around? We’re talking about it like it’s obsolete, but it remains the standard at most newspapers (and consequently, most PR offices; press releases sent to newspapers have a better shot at being published if they are already in the paper’s style of choice).

    According to this piece, its influence is actually growing:

  10. Jeff Thompson Says:

    Lolly- I don’t think we’re in disagreement. Content and structure is what we’re both speaking of, though I’ll grant you it’s been a few years since I’ve referred to the style guide. And by the way, if I were to study the local newspaper closely, I could cite you instance after instance in which the Observer ignores the guidelines.

  11. Lolly Says:

    Oh, absolutely! When I lived in Fayetteville, I could always spot a glaring error in the Observer within 5 minutes of sitting down to breakfast. And not just AP-style failures — blatant misspellings and total misuse of words.

    Maybe they are one of those papers that has done away with the copy desk altogether? I sure hope not.

  12. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Just got back to the link that Lolly posted (above) on July 22, in which she noted that interest in, and use of, the APStylebook seems to be increasing in recent times.
    Thanks to Lolly for that. And may I recommend that you click on the link Lolly kindly provided and read the posting by Mallary Jean Tenore (in Poynter Online) on June 18. Quite interesting. I may yet be converted . . . . (But I’ve temporarily forgotten what my earlier religion was–or I guess it was a lack of a code of beliefs.)

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