Clarification of a Capitalization Rule

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Sharp-eyed reader DC emailed me, pointing out an assumption I made in Rule #11 of my last post: I assumed you would know that I was referring only to prepositions found in titles. I knew what I meant and assumed you would all be mindreaders. This rule applies only to prepositions in titles—anywhere else (except for the first word of a sentence), they are all lowercase.

I apologize for the confusion I may have caused. I broke my own rule: never assume anything.

As always, feel free to write me with questions, corrections and suggestions. I’m eager to hear from you.

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Capitalization Rules

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(Add a question mark and I agree completely.)

Sometimes I get the feeling that many writers think they were, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin or Abigail Adams in an earlier life. Those people lived during the time when words could be capitalized at will. In fact, rules now do exist for when to use them. Here’s a quick refresher:

1. The personal pronoun I, no matter where it occurs in a sentence: My friend and I just ate lunch. I’m no longer hungry because I’ve had a big meal.

2. The first word of a sentence.

3. Names of specific people: Madonna, Captain Kangaroo

4. Names of specific places: Acapulco, the Caspian Sea

5. Names of specific things: the Statue of Liberty, Kennedy High School

6. Days of the week, months of the year, but not the seasons: Tuesday, August, spring

7. Titles of books, movies, TV programs, courses: The Goldfinch, Midnight in Paris, Curb Your Enthusiasm, History 101

8. People’s titles only when the person is named immediately before or after the title: Secretary of State John Kerry (but John Kerry is the secretary of state); Pope Francis I (but Francis I is the pope)

9. Names of specific companies, organizations and departments: Occidental Petroleum, Kiwanis, the Human Resources Department

10. Geographical locations but not geographical directions: the Far East, Southern California, the Midwest (but I drove south on the San Diego Freeway for 50 miles)

11. Prepositions when they are four or more letters long: From, With, Among, in, out, Between

Be very sparing in using capitalization for emphasis. Let your words show the emphasis. As with any form of calling attention to your message (e.g., bold, italics, underlining), when you emphasize everything you end up emphasizing nothing.

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More From “Just My Typo”

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This wonderful little book was compiled by Drummond Moir. Here is today’s offering:

ONE MAN WAS ADMITTED TO HOSPITAL SUFFERING FROM BUNS (Bristol Gazette)

GERMANS ARE SO SMALL THAT THERE MAY BE AS MANY AS ONE BILLION, SEVEN-HUNDRED MILLION OF THEM IN A DROP OF WATER
(Mobile Press)

With its highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by Queen Elizabeth, the honey bee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behavior….Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day. (Reuters)

During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the Washington Post was credited with the “most famous newspaper typo” in DC history. The Post intended to report that President Wilson had been “entertaining” his future wife, Mrs. Galt, but instead wrote that he had been “entering” her.

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End Punctuation for “Wonder” and “Guess”

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More often that not, I see sentences like the following:

I wonder what time Mike will be arriving?

Guess who I met at the basketball game?

“Wonder” and “Guess” sentences are almost always punctuated (incorrectly) as if they were questions. In fact, they are declarative sentences.

In the first sentence, you are not sure what time Mike will arrive. You have a question in your mind: Will he be here at three o’clock? Four o’clock? You just don’t know. But your sentence is not a question. You are merely stating the fact that you’re unsure when to expect Mike.

In the second sentence, you are asking someone to guess whom you met at the game. That person doesn’t know. But you know and, in fact, you are ordering the other person to do something: to guess who the mystery person is. The sentence is a command, not a question.

I suggest that when you write a “wonder” or “guess” sentence, check specifically to make sure you’ve used the correct end punctuation.

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Clichés in the News (and Maybe in Your Own Writing)

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Patrick La Forge of the New York Times has written about clichés frequently found in spoken or written news reports. I’ve seen many of these sneak into business writing. Try to avoid them; find a fresh way to make your point.

Plans are often “afoot.” Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

If something is “on the brink,” it’s likely “teetering.”

Often, war veterans are “grizzled.”

Gambles? They are “high stake.”

Forays or incursions are all too often “ill fated.”

When you don’t want to publicize something, you are “tightlipped.”

Are you wasting time? You are likely “frittering away” the hours.

And finally, car chases are invariably “high speed,” (except for the one back in the mid-1990s when OJ Simpson made his leisurely way down the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles; now that was news).

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Simple or Simplistic?

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Too often I hear people use “simplistic” when they really mean “simple.” These two words are not synonyms; “simplistic” is not a fancy way of saying “simple.”

“Simple” means easy to understand, not overly complicated.(You knew that.)

“Simplistic” means overly simple, making a complicated situation seem easier than it actually is: “Alleviating the drought would be easy if people would just turn off the water when they brush their teeth.”

Simple, right? Einstein was saying, “Make it simple but not simplistic.”

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More Similar but Different Words

imagesDo any of these confuse you? I hope this list will help.

DEMURE—shy, reserved, modest: The young woman’s dress and demure behavior led one to think she might be a Quaker or Amish. (pronounced duhMYOOR)

DEMUR—the action of showing reluctance or doubts, hesitating or objecting: Francine thought she might accept her boss’ offer, but something about his attitude caused her to demur. (pronounced duhMUR)

PORE (v.)—to read or study carefully, to be absorbed in an activity: Benjamin, an avid golfer, pored over every golf magazine and article he could find.

POUR—what you do with a liquid and/or your feelings: Stephen poured a full glass of Burgundy and then poured out his feelings to his girlfriend.

PEAK—the pointed summit of a mountain; the point of highest activity; the pointed part of a shape, such as the peaks in beaten egg whites: In the baking competition at the top of Pike’s Peak, Sandra found herself in a peak of frenzy while beating 10 egg whites into stiff peaks for her famous French macarons.

PEEK—to look quickly or sneakily: Sandra’s competitors sneaked peeks at her while she whipped those egg whites.

PIQUE—to stimulate curiosity or interest: Sandra’s baking expertise piqued intense interest in all her competitors.

AISLE—a passageway between rows of seats or between shelves in supermarkets or other stores; what the wedding party walks down: A store the size of Costco contains dozens of aisles for food and dry goods. (Has anyone gotten married in an aisle at Costco? Probably.)

ISLE—an island. Robinson Crusoe lived on an isle; England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are called the British Isles.

Remember, all these are words; your spellchecker won’t know if you’ve used the wrong one by accident. It’s up to you to proofread carefully.

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