The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: Capitalization

Some days it seems like basic capitalization is becoming a thing of the past. With texting, auto-correct, and even intuitive typing in word processing programs, it’s easy to just not bother with a silly little thing like capitalization. I’ve been guilty of rushing through a text and not bothering to check and see if my phone automatically changed the i to I or not.

Typos and all lowercase in texts to your friends is one thing, but when it comes to actual writing (as in a blog post, story, query letter, resume, school paper, etc.) capitalization matters. I’m going to highlight just the basics here. Refer to your style manual of choice (Chicago, AP, etc.) for the finer points of capitalization for things like acronyms, honorary titles for individuals or groups, headings and subheadings in articles, and so forth.

The first word of a sentence

This should be a no-brainer. The first letter of the first word of every sentence should be capitalized, even if the word is “the,” like in this sentence.

Proper names

Proper names include:

People’s names – Joe, Sue Smith, or yours truly Grace Robinson

Place names – America, New York City, Grand Canyon

Other proper names (brands, stores, organizations, etc.) – the White House, the Blue Angels, Saks Fifth Avenue

In English, the only pronoun that gets regularly capitalized is “I.” This makes English unusual, because in most languages, the first person singular personal pronoun is no different from “he,” “they,” or “you.”

Book, movie, and song titles

Examples:

The Notebook – as in the Nicholas Sparks novel, or the movie based on his novel. If you’re writing about just a random notebook, it would not be capitalized – unless it’s the first word of the sentence, of course.

“Let it Go” – a perfectly normal phrase, but if you’re referring to the song from Frozen (see, more capitalization), then it now goes in caps.

Other Really Important Words

This is sort of a joke, and sort of not – it mostly depends on context. Unconventional capitalization can be used for humorous effect in a blog post, like this Really Important Post about Capitalization that you’re currently reading. Capitalizing ordinarily non-proper nouns is common in genre fiction like fantasy, such as the One Ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. “One” and “ring” are common, unimportant words, but in the context of that story, the capitalization lets the reader know that this particular Ring is anything but common.

One important thing to note, though, about capitalizing ordinary words for emphasis: it’s basically universally agreed that texting or posting on social media IN ALL CAPS is the equivalent of shouting, and should be used sparingly. And by sparingly, I mean putting ONE word in all caps for emphasis, NOT THE ENTIRE BLASTED POST. (That’s my opinion – and widely-agreed-upon internet etiquette).

So there you have it – a few small basic rules of capitalization. As I mentioned, please refer to an actual style guide if you get bogged down with capitalization details. But in the meantime, sticking to these basic rules for school papers and internet posts can help add a little professional polish to your work.

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The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: The Placement of Only

“Only” is a common word, and it usually functions as an adverb or an adjective, meaning that it modifies a verb or a noun. Most people understand the basic definition of this word: alone, merely, exclusively. But it’s using “only” in the right place in a sentence that seems to trip people up.

English has parts of speech and a certain structure to its sentences which provide context and meaning to the words. Even if traditional word order is changed around – like, for example, when Yoda speaks – the words still have the same function and meaning.

The most common misuse of “only” is putting it in the wrong place in a sentence. For example:

I only want one doughnut.

Most people would understand this sentence to mean that the speaker wants one doughnut, no more. But grammatically, that’s not what this sentence says. Actually, this sentence isn’t necessarily incorrect – if the word you’re trying to modify is “want.”

When worded this way, “only” is modifying the word “want.” Adjectives and adverb usually come right before the noun or the verb that they are supposed to modify. What this sentence is actually saying is “Desire is the sole feeling I am experiencing. I do not need a doughnut, I do not wish for a doughnut, I don’t even kind of like doughnuts occasionally – my want is all that consumes me.”

Only I want one doughnut.

This wording could have two different meanings. Used this way, “only” can be replacing the word “but.” It could also be modifying “I,” thus indicating that no one else wants a doughnut. Again, technically the sentence is correct, but it may not be communicating the exact meaning that you intended.

I want only one doughnut.

Now “only” is modifying the number of doughnuts, indicating that one and no more is all that is desired.

I want one doughnut only.

Again, a correct sentence, but here the implication could be that one doughnut – and nothing else of any sort – is all that is desired. The “only” modifies the word “doughnut” more directly here, rather than modifying the word “one,” as in the previous example.

A lot of this depends on the context. If the scene is a buffet of many different foods, then “I want one doughnut only” could be appropriate if you are emphasizing your desire for a single doughnut instead of sampling the entire buffet.

Context applies to all of these examples. And context is part of why, especially when we’re talking, we frequently modify the wrong part of our sentences with “only.” Because of the context, others around know what is meant, and nobody thinks twice about it.

When writing (unless you’re writing a scene with realistic dialogue) it pays to double-check the placement of your “onlies.” Even if the reader can understand your meaning based on the context, if the work is a published story, a blog post, or a school paper, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Examine the structure of the sentence to see which word “only” is emphasizing. Turn it into Yoda-speak if you have to:

Only one doughnut, I want.

See, even Yoda knows how to let you know that he wants a single doughnut, not the whole plate of Krispy Kremes.

What International Travel has taught me about English

English is my native language, and I’m very grateful that my mother tongue is basically the Latin of the 21st century – the language of universal commerce. I say grateful because I always want to keep an attitude of humility when it comes to the global dominance of my language. I never want to be one of those travelers who, upon arriving on a foreign shore, arrogantly expects the locals to speak English and is offended when they don’t. I appreciate every person in another country who does speak English to me, and I usually try to learn at least a greeting or a thank you in the local language.

I’m far from being a seasoned traveler, but my experiences both overseas and with foreigners in America has taught me a few things about my beloved English.

Normal conversational speech is way too fast. And I’m from the American South where we taaaalk….reeaall…sloooow. If you’re in a non-English-speaking nation, or talking to a local at home who is still learning English, slow it down. Whatever you think is absurdly slow is probably still a little fast, especially if the other person’s English is very poor. And be sure to annunciate each word. We all tend to mumble and blend our words in the comfort of our mother tongue. A side note: resist the urge to shout. The other person knows English as a second, third, or fourth language – their hearing is probably fine. I tend to be soft spoken, so I’m not usually a shouter, but if I have to repeat myself several times, I do remind myself to speak slower and clearer, not necessarily louder.

Don’t judge or correct. If someone says something to me that makes grammatical sense but not contextual sense, I ask for clarification about the word that I think they might have misused. Asking for clarification or explanation is a more polite way of letting the non-English speaking person know that they goofed. Nobody likes to embarrassed, even if they made a legitimate mistake. By using this technique, I’ve often had the other person admit they probably used the wrong word and ask me for help. It’s much nicer to be asked to help someone with their English than to be the language police making corrections all the time. Also, whenever I’m tempted to judge someone’s English or get impatient, I ask myself how well I would do at talking to them in their language. Since I know far less Norwegian/Chinese/Farsi/etc. than they know English, I choose to be grateful that they’re trying to communicate with me at all.

English is hard. Grammar and spelling rules, exceptions to those rules, different pronunciations for the same letter combinations… Even us native speakers – and yes, even us grammar nerds – have trouble remembering all the rules and conventions of English. Yes, every language has its quirks and inconsistencies, but most everyone agrees that English is near the top of the list of difficult to learn. I’m always appreciative when someone has taken the time and mental effort to learn English, even just a little bit. Again, if I ever catch myself growing impatient with a non-native speaker’s improper use of sentence structure – like saying “You is” or something – I remind myself that I likely couldn’t do half that well in their language. And again, I keep an attitude of gratitude. I’m thankful and humbled that I was born into an English speaking culture. Not because English is better than other languages, but because I’m blessed that one of the complex languages of the world today comes naturally to me.

The Nitty-Gritting of Writing: Fewer versus Less

“Fewer” and “less” – I often see these two words used interchangeably. While they both have to do with amounts and numbers, they should not be sued as exact synonyms of each other. “Fewer” is used for plural nouns, and “less” is for singular nouns.

Here’s what I mean:

Fewer

“The lake was empty today – I saw fewer than ten boats all day.”

Boats is plural, and so the plural modifier of “fewer” should be used.

A way to remember this is to use the word “few” with the noun you’re wanting to modify. Would you say “There are a few boats on the lake today”? Yes – therefore, “fewer” is the correct choice rather than “less.”

Less

“We got less snow this winter than we did last year.”

The word snow, though it can be a collective or mass noun, is singular.

If you were to use “snowflakes,” however, the modifier would be “fewer,” because “snowflakes” is plural.

“Fewer snowflakes fell today than yesterday.”

“Less snow fell today than yesterday.”

In everyday usage, “less” is used for everything. Ever go to a supermarket and see the “10 items or less” express lane? Items is plural, so “fewer” would be the accurate word to use in these signs.

But as I like to remind readers – despite these grammar police posts that I do periodically, I understand that everyday conversational English is not the same as proper written English. If you’re chatting with a friend and you say something about “less emails,” don’t stress about it.

However, if you’re writing an article or a school paper or giving a public speech, check your nouns before you choose your quantitative modifier.

Remember, less is more.

And proofread so you have fewer mistakes.

Why Spell-Check Should Not be Your Only Editor

Thank God for spell-check, right? Without it, even the best writers would be spending more time with their dictionaries than actually writing. Or everything that’s published would be so riddled with mistakes that no one could read it. But spell-check isn’t everything.

Spell-check will alert us to simple typos and transposed letters (am I the only one who often types “hte” instead of “the” when I’m in a hurry?) Even the grammar-check that’s part of most word-processing programs is far from infallible. Here are some examples of mistakes that even the best spell-check software won’t catch, and why it never hurts to have another pair of human eyes to look over your work.

Homophone mix-ups

Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

Example: My car is parked over their.

It should read: My car is parked over there. (There is a place, their refers to something that belongs to them). In this sentence, “their” is spelled correctly, it’s just the wrong word for this sentence.

Easily Confused Words

These can be homophones, or words that sound sort of similar, or simply a word that the writer isn’t familiar with so he gambles on something he thinks is right.

Example: Please except my apology.

It should read: Please accept my apology.

Except means “excluding,” or sometimes replaces the word “but” in a sentence. Accept means to receive or agree to. Since these words are almost-homophones, they’re often confused. Very different meanings, though – but something that spell-check won’t catch.

Easily mis-typed words

These are words that are spelled correctly, but are simply the wrong word for the sentence.

Example: I’ve loved dogs every since I can remember.

Every is a fine word – but in this case, the word should be ever.

Other correctly-spelled words that can often be mistyped: any instead of andthen instead of than or the other way around, food instead of good. I could go on, but these are some that I’ve mistyped on more than one occasion.

British versus American spellings

This one isn’t so much about typos as it is about consistency. “Colour” and “color” are both correct spellings – you just need to know which one is appropriate to use. My American word processing program puts the red “misspelled word” line under “colour” because that’s not the correct spelling for American English. So if you’re a Canadian writing for an American publication, or an American writing for a European publication, just remember which is the correct spelling for your market, and be consistent.

Example: I love the colour pink, and my favorite ice-cream flavor is strawberry.

As I said, either spelling is correct, but consistency is what is needed. Either have “favourite” and “flavour” match your spelling of “colour,” or change them all to the American standards.

Run-on Sentences

Example: We went shopping, then had lunch and later had ice cream – chocolate, of course – and my sister said that we should get together every weekend and do this and I agreed.

There’s technically nothing ungrammatical here, nor any misspellings. It’s just a simple run-on sentence. It would be easier to read as two sentences. If you’re done with the developmental edits of your work and just need that final polish of copy editing or proofreading, this is the sort of thing that a good editor will catch. Spell-check won’t.

Spelling inconsistencies

This one is sort of like the European vs. American spellings, as in there is no right or wrong. Consistency is what counts here.

Example: Sara vs. Sarah.

If you have a character named Sara, make sure that her name is Sara the entire way through the story. Readers might get confused if her name suddenly changes to Sarah in chapter seven. Again, spell-check and even a high-tech grammar-check won’t catch this.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples to point out why everyone needs an editor or at least a few sharp-eyed critique partners. And I’m sure that I have provided such examples in many of my blog posts! I’m also not trying to bash spell-check or other automatic editing programs. Let’s just not forget the human element. A trained editor’s eyes and brain will still trump a computer program and help you to put your best writing forward.

The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: I versus Me

Tell me if this sounds familiar: as a child, you explained that “Sue and me went to the pool today,” or “Daddy bought toys for Sue and me.” And then a well-meaning adult instructed you to say “Sue and I,” not “Sue and me.”

Well, one of those would be correct. The other is not.

Let me give you some grammarly background. I is a pronoun (meaning it’s a word that takes the place of a proper noun). In this case, you would use I to talk about yourself, so that you don’t use your own name and go around talking about yourself in the third person like Elmo. A noun is usually the subject of a sentence.

The word me is a direct or indirect object (specifically, the personal pronoun in the objective case). Anyway, what this means is that me is the object being acting upon by the verb and subject of the sentence.

In the first sentence example above, Sue and the speaker are the subjects of the sentence. So I would be the proper pronoun to use here. An easy way to test this: remove the other subject (Sue) from the sentence.

Which one sounds correct? “Me went to the pool,” or “I went to the pool.” Yep, the second one is correct. So dear old Ma was right when she told you to say “Sue and I went to the pool today.”

In the second example of “Daddy bought toys for Sue and me,” Daddy is the subject of the sentence. Sue and the speaker are the direct objects (the nouns that are receiving the action of the verb – in this case, the people receiving the toys bought by Daddy). So the objective case pronoun would be the correct one to use.

Again, test it by removing the other direct object (Sue) from the sentence. “Daddy bought toys for me,” or “Daddy bought toys for I.” Yep, this time it’s me. Dear old Ma got that one wrong if she told you to use I.

So if you’re talking or writing about yourself and someone (or something) else, just remove the other person from the sentence to see if it should be I or me. If you’re fluent enough in English to be reading this blog post, then you can trust your ear to know which self-pronoun sounds right.

Of course, you can avoid the whole mess and use “we” or “us.” Just remember that “we” is the subjective pronoun, and “us” is the objective pronoun.

Or you can keep it really simple and just talk like Elmo.