Critique Technique, Part 52 — Capitalization

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Capitalization is another one of those “mechanical” writing areas where I see a lot of problems. New writers aren’t the only ones who struggle with it either.

Most writers get the very most basic things right: capitalizing the first word of each sentence, the names of people and places, and so on. Word processors’ grammar checkers will often look for capitalization errors, too, if that functionality is turned on, and there are online tools like Grammarly and web sites where writers can check the rules. A few are the Catalyst capitalization page from McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Grammarly’s blog page on the topic, and “A Little Help with Capitals” from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.

Fiction Flubs

These resources all do at least a good job with helping to clarify what words should or should not be capitalized but mostly for non-fiction, memoir, or academic writing. What about in fiction? I’ve noticed a couple of trends among the writers I’ve worked with.

Capitalizing for Emphasis

Novice writers often engage in “shouting,” that is, using ALL CAPITALS when they want to show that a character is experiencing HIGH EMOTION, especially in their EXCLAMATIONS!!!!!! This technique has a number of problems.

First, it’s hard to read, especially of the author uses it for a long statement—when a character really is shouting. Second, it’s non-standard. Most fiction writers use italics instead. Third, too often it’s paired with multiple exclamation points, the way I did above. Using all caps this way shows that the writer doesn’t trust the reader to understand, from the words themselves and from the context, that this is a moment of high emotion, or that they don’t trust themselves to convey that emotional content to the reader.

Sometimes a writer will just capitalize the first letter of words they want to emphasize. I’ve seen this more often among my military friends who’ve served in Germany. Nouns are capitalized in German, so some of my Friends have decided to import this Technique into their Writing. That looks odd to English Speakers and Writers, so rather than emphasizing the Words, they distract the Reader from whatever Point the Author was trying to make.

Names of Non-Human (Sentient) Species

Science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even religious fiction can feature non-human characters, or what are sometimes called trans-human or post-human ones. How should an author deal with orcs, elves, goblins, angels, or vampires, not to mention Ewoks, Hutts, Klingons, Tribbles, and Romulans? After all, just in that sentence, the first five species’ names are not capitalized, while the last five are.

A grammar guide for college students I have recommends not capitalizing a description of an ethnic group or race when it’s used as an adjective, but capitalizing the term when it’s a more formal name for that same group or race. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work well for my list above. If the name of a race or species is tied to the name of its home, whether that’s a planet, country, or region (for example, Romulans from the planet Romulus), and that location name would be capitalized, then capitalizing the species name makes sense.

Similarly, if the word is a generic identifier, such as orc, then leaving the word in lower case makes sense. However, if the word is used in a specific sense, such as “Grbash the Orc,” or in a species title such as “the Orcs,” then the species name likely should be capitalized.

In my own books, I have trans- or post-human species I call New People and Gen2s (for second generation New People). While some of the members of my critique group have complained that having these terms capitalized is awkward, I’ve argued that for clarity’s sake, if nothing else, the terms New People or New Person need to be capitalized to distinguish a member of the New Person class from any new person who just shows up in the story.

Clarity and consistency, especially with regard to the conventions of the genre, are the best guides here.

Questions for You

If you find that an author is misusing capital letters, or using them inconsistently, here are some questions you can ask yourself.

  • Is the author using all capitals for emphasis, when she should be using italics?
    • Does she need to be doing anything at all to the printed text, or are the words themselves and their context enough to show that emotion?
  • Is he capitalizing words, like ordinary nouns, that are not typically capitalized in English?
  • Is the author consistent in how she capitalizes her references to non-human sentient species? Is she following the conventions of her genre?

If you find any of these kinds of capitalization errors, or others, be sure not only to mark them in the text but to discuss the correct form with the author.

Very few writers will take the path of e. e. cummings and avoid capital letters altogether. That means that Capitalization errors are likely to Crop Up from time to Time. Even if a reader can’t identify exactly why they’re having trouble with a piece, they’ll know Something Is Wrong. Our job as reviewers is to help our authors keep their readers reading without stumbling.

Do you have any special techniques for spotting capitalization errors? Be a capitol fellow or lady and offer your suggestions in the comments box below.

3 comments to Critique Technique, Part 52 — Capitalization

  • Critique Technique Table of Contents - Split/Sun  says:

    […] Critique Technique, Part 52 — Capitalization […]

  • Ross B Lampert  says:

    I’m curious what you mean when you say you “capitalize for effect.”

    As for all the Twitter-ese acronyms (lol, rofl, ttyl, k, and so on) I understand but some of us have to work with people who use them, so…. 🙂

  • msbmw72  says:

    This is tricky. I try to use reasonable guidelines which, I admit, are self imposed. I rarely “scream”. I mostly capitalize for effect and almost always try to be grammatically correct. Call it age and the era in which I grew and was educated. I have tried not to be party to the abbreviations and, frankly, do not understand a lot of them and THEY appear to be mostly capitalized but due to laziness are not a lot of times.

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