Thursday, 21 July 2016

Capitalization, Honorifics, and Yo’ Mama

If you tell your GP, “Give it to me straight, doctor,” does she deserve a capital letter? Should it be “Give it to me straight, Doctor”? It depends who you ask. When it comes to capitalizing titles like professor or miss (also called honorifics), there is dissension in the ranks of grammarians.

"Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a sushi chef!"

Direct Address


  • “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a sushi chef!” protested Doctor McCoy.

We can all agree that doctor should be lower case here and Doctor McCoy should be capitalized. The first is simply an ordinary noun and needs no special treatment: a doctor, the doctor, my doctor. The second is an honorific in front of a name, and as with Captain Kirk, Mr. Sulu, or Lieutenant Uhura, it should be capitalized.

Things get more contentious when the honorific steps into the shoes of a name. Dr. McCoy’s dialogue is an example of direct address (also sometimes called the vocative case): he’s speaking to someone—Kirk—directly. When he says “Dammit, Jim,” the use of a capital for Jim is obvious; it’s a name. But what if McCoy were addressing him as captain? What about buster?

  • “Dammit, C/captain, I’m a doctor, not a trapeze artist!”
  • “I’ll darn well sass you if I feel like it, b/Buster!”

Up Style vs. Down Style


The Chicago Manual of Style, the bible of copy editors, is firm on the use of capitals in direct address. In an online Q & A column, Chicago’s editors write, “It doesn’t matter what the word is: captain, coach, aunt, joker, brain. If it’s used in place of a name, cap it.”

  • “Dammit, Captain, I’m a doctor, not a trapeze artist!”
  • “I’ll darn well sass you if I feel like it, Buster!”

On the other hand, well-known grammar arbiter Grammar Girl writes, “In cases where [honorifics] stand alone, even in direct address, they are lowercase.” She offers as examples “Hey, mister, look out for that pelican!” and “Gee, doctor, it hurts when I stick out my tongue.”

  • “Dammit, captain, I’m a doctor, not a trapeze artist!”
  • “I’ll darn well sass you if I feel like it, buster!”

The generous use of capitalization is sometimes referred to as up style, while using capitals more sparingly is called down style. Manuals like Chicago, which tend to embrace up style for direct address, are generally geared towards formal writing—say, for academic, government, or business contexts. Pick up any popular book, however, and you’ll most likely see down style.

But that doesn’t mean capitalizing honorifics is a matter of personal whim. There are a few words that even the most formal style guides won’t capitalize, and some words that fiction editors would wince to see in lower case.

Do go haunt someone else, Mother!

Relativity: Family Titles


Mom (or Mum), Dad, Mother, and Father are always capitalized—when they’re used like names. Try substituting a name (we’ll use Spock) for the title in question. If it makes sense, cap it; if it doesn’t, use lower case.

  • My mom said she’d drive us to the rave. (my Spock X)
  • Are you going to bake a file into Father’s cake? (Spock’s cake )
  • Do go haunt someone else, Mother! (haunt someone else, Spock ✓)
  • All the dads are wearing tutus to the barbecue. (all the Spocks X)

You can apply the Spock method to other family members as well:

  • Who gave Grandmother a litre of vodka? (who gave Spock )
  • Phoebe inherited the time travel machine from her grandpa. (her Spock X)
  • One should not take advice from one’s disreputable uncle. (one’s Spock X)
  • I already knew you were a witch, Auntie. (you were a witch, Spock )
  • Don’t let Uncle bring his Jello salad. (don’t let Spock ✓)

Of course, family titles are always capitalized when they’re followed by a name, in the same way you’d capitalize Doctor Zhivago or Captain America.

  • our Grandma Eng (but our grandma, Eng)
  • his Uncle Ahmed (but his uncle, Ahmed)
  • Flora’s Cousin Judith (but Flora’s cousin, Judith)

Some family titles are less obviously capitalized. Brother or sister, for example, could mean any old schmo.

  • Can you spare a dime, brother?
  • You’re a tough cookie, sister.

Even when talking to your actual sibling, you might still prefer a more casual “Nice one, bro.” In some cultures titles like uncle and auntie are applied generally and not just to your parents’ siblings; an author might decide to convey this by keeping them lower case.

You’re a tough cookie, sister.

Sir, Ma’am, and Nicknames


For reasons lost in the mists of time (or at least not immediately findable on the Internet), the following words are never capitalized when used without a name:

  • sir
  • ma’am / madam
  • my lord
  • my lady

(Hard-core grammar nerds can confirm this in section 8.32 of the Chicago Manual.) Even should you happen to speak to the Queen, she would only merit lower case:

  • “Your corgis are eating my shoe, ma’am.”

Nicknames, on the other hand, are always capitalized, since they’re another type of name—Bucky, Stretch, Chewy, Four-Eyes—but sometimes the line between a personal nickname and a generic descriptive term can get kind of fuzzy. Consider kiddo, genius, loser, killer, and sunshine. Of course, up style would cap these in any case (provided they were used in place of a name). If you’re using down style, you might want to think about the difference between a word that’s specific to an individual and one that’s used less discriminately. John Henry Holliday was known as Doc at the O.K. Corral, but Bugs Bunny says “What’s up, doc?” to a variety of characters.

When to Capitalize Direct Address: The Takeaway


Those of you looking for hard and fast rules on this issue are doomed to disappointment. As with so many grammar questions, the answer boils down to context and consistency. What degree of formality does your reader expect—are you writing a business letter or a blog post? Once you’ve chosen your style—up or down—apply it consistently. Remember to capitalize Mom and Dad where appropriate (calling on Mr. Spock for help as needed), and leave sir and ma’am lower case. After that, dear reader, you’re on your own.


Thursday, 14 July 2016

Colon vs. Semicolon: Punctuation Smackdown

When a comma is too wimpy and a period is too severe, you need a colon or a semicolon—but which?

Jeeves the Colon


A colon is like a butler: it introduces things. It holds open the door and says, “Mrs. Herringbone to see you, ma’am.” The sight of a colon raises expectations for what is to follow.

  • A spelunker must possess the following: a miner’s helmet, a sturdy rope, waterproof boots, and nerves of steel.
  • Only one creature in these woods burbles like that: the Jabberwock.
  • “Your plan failed, Count Svitavsky, because you forgot one thing: Fifi is allergic to jujubes.”

A spelunker must possess the following: a miner’s helmet, a sturdy rope, waterproof boots, and nerves of steel.

A colon can introduce a list, an example, an explanation, or a conclusion, but remember this: what comes before the colon must be able to stand on its own as a sentence.

  • X Their date consisted of: hot dogs, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.
  • Their date consisted of hot dogs, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.

  • X Over the course of the evening they stole: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
  • Over the course of the evening they stole hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
  • They stole only items beginning with an h: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.

Semicolons Are for Lovers


When you have two sentences so intimately related they beg not to be apart, join them with a semicolon. But be sure the clauses on both sides of the semicolon are independent—that is, able to stand on their own.

  • It was spring; they were in love.
  • Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon; Tariq selected the spatula.

Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon; Tariq selected the spatula.

Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of using a comma where you should use a semicolon. Commas work with coordinating conjunctions like and or but (see Commas and Conjunctions); without a conjunction, you get a painful comma splice.

  • X It was spring, they were in love.
  • It was spring and they were in love.

  • X Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon, Tariq selected the spatula.
  • Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon, but Tariq selected the spatula.

Semicolons as Supercommas


Semicolons are sometimes used instead of commas in long, complicated sentences holding multiple clauses, especially when those clauses are themselves already stuffed with commas. In those cases, the semicolons are like extra-emphatic commas.

  • Outside the agent’s door stood an astronaut, sweating under his helmet; a ballerina, patting her bun and fluffing her tutu; a nun, her wimple in danger of poking someone’s eye out; and a sasquatch, whose oversized footprints could be seen up and down the hall.
  • You could scale the wall with your grappling hook and creep through the mansion on silent feet, unnoticed by the sleeping baron, until you found the hidden room and, using your hard-won skills, opened its lock with your little picks; but you still wouldn’t have a clue how to get inside the safe.

Semicolons with However and That Is


A semicolon is often used before that is (or i.e.), for example (or e.g.), however, therefore, indeed, or similar expressions.

  • You’ve eaten the last olive; however, I won’t hold it against you.
  • I’m always a considerate neighbour; for example, I never practise the tuba after midnight.
  • His new fairy wings were a great success; that is, they worked brilliantly until he hit the ground.

Again, notice that the clauses on both sides of the semicolons could work as separate sentences if they wanted to. Otherwise, the semicolons wouldn’t belong there.

  • Mitzi swore she’d become an evil enchantress however long it took.
  • Your grandmother is indeed running naked through the park.
  • Your grandmother is naked; indeed, she is running through the park.

Mitzi swore she’d become an evil enchantress however long it took.

Match Decision


Sometimes the colon-or-semicolon question can be tough to answer. Does the second clause illuminate the first, or are they just holding hands?

  • The mailbox was empty: there was no squid.
  • The mailbox was empty; there was no squid.

It’s a question of nuance, and one that you, as a writer, will have to decide for yourself. Or you could just avoid the dilemma by using a period instead.

  • The mailbox was empty. There was no squid.

It’s your call.




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