Tuesday, November 15

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, November 15, 2011 14 comments
Dear editor-on-call,

I always forget when certain words should be capitalized, like sir (Sir?). Can you help?

Case sensitive
aka Janet Sumner Johnson at Musings of a Children's Writer

Dear Case,

My quirky post title is a good mnemonic device: Don a cap[ital] if you're proper. In other words, capitalize proper nouns, but leave common nouns lowercase.

A proper noun is a NAME. For the most part, this is pretty simple to understand. Anne Shirley loves Gilbert Blythe, not gilbert blythe. (She might IM with gil_blythe, but I digress).

Trademarks are names (Barbie, Kleenex, Lycra), weekdays and months are names (Monday, September), artistic work titles are names (The Shining, Evita, Mona Lisa), specific places have names (Yosemite, London, Lake Country, Serengeti Plain), specific events have names (Lycoming County Fair, Little Bears Fun Run, Easter, Rosh Hashanah).

The tricky thing is when common nouns behave like proper nouns, or transform as part of a compound proper noun.

Let's look at your example, "sir." It's one of those courteous words waiters use when talking to men, hoping for a big tip: "And what will you have tonight, sir? May I recommend a wine to pair with that, sir?" That's the most usual use in our culture.

But once upon a time (and once upon today in certain social circles), there existed men of noble rank whose name was always preceded by a "sir," and the title was considered part of the name. Therefore, the common noun shifts to proper noun when it becomes part of a name. (You picking up a theme here?)

So, for example, your historical (or fantasy or upmarket) fiction might have sentences like this:
Sir Wallace stomped into the house, furious. "Where is my son?!" he bellowed. "Where is Sir Reginald?"
His servant bowed low. "I know not, m'lord, sir. If you please, sir, I have not seen Sir Reginald since breakfast."

Generally, sir will be lowercase unless paired with the nobleman's name. The only exception would be if a character refers to someone using a title in place of a name. In Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Celie refers to her abusive husband as "Mister."

Let's tackle some far more common examples of problems making the common/proper distinction--family members.

The common nouns dad, father, mom and mother become proper when substituting for or acting like a name. My daughter doesn't call me Laurel; she calls me Mommy, Mama or Mom.

Hobbit Girl might say, "Mommy, I think you are the coolest mom ever."

In the first instance, she is addressing me "by name," that is, her name for me. In the second instance, she is talking about the role of mother, a common noun.

Here are some other examples:
"Dad!" Betsy called. "Where are you, Daddy?"
She turned to Hazel with a knowing smile. "My daddy can fix anything, just you wait."
"Aw, hogwash," Hazel said. "All your daddy can fix are martinis."
"I'm gonna tell Dad what you said. He'll whup you good, Hazel Dawkins."

Extended family such as aunts and uncles often have these titles appended to names in a fashion similar to sir.

For example:
Aunt Jo was the nicest sort of aunt. A cushiony couch of a woman, Auntie kept her hearth fire burning and all her candy jars full. Liesl wished she could live with her aunt forever and ever. She'd stop calling her Aunt Jo and start calling her Mama.

Hope that helps clarify things for you!

What capitalization conundrums trip you up most?


  1. What a fun walk across Sir Reginald's meadow.

  2. Brilliant post, Laurel. I always learn something when I come your way :)

  3. Thank you, ma'am, for the clarification! ;)

  4. Fortunately, I have my caps down, but a good reminder is always welcome.

  5. LOVE this!! And my students will too. :-)

  6. Kittie: yeah, I have waaaaay too much fun coming up with examples. Thanks for stopping by!

    Melissa: This is my favorite classroom, where there's no public speaking involved. ;-)

  7. Janet: Always happy to help. Thanks for the question!

    Holly: I always learn something when I browse my style books to answer these questions. This time it was that weekdays and months are always capitalized.

    Shannon: Aw, thanks. I try to make my examples appeal to a younger crowd. Personally, I want Hazel to get whupped. LOL.

  8. Your examples are great, as well as spot-on! I'm a little befuddled about my MC calling his little sisters "squirrels"--would that be capped? He says, "Good night, little squirrels." ???

  9. Carol: No, those stay lowercase. Here's what a source I found says:
    Names of relationships only when they are a part of or a substitute for a person's name. (Often this means that when there is a modifier, such as a possessive pronoun, in front of such a word, we do not capitalize it.)
    Let's go visit Grandmother today. Let's go visit my grandmother today.
    I remember Uncle Arthur. I remember my Uncle Arthur. My uncle is unforgettable.

    This also means that we don't normally capitalize the name of a "vocative" or term of endearment:
    Can you get the paper for me, hon?
    Drop the gun, sweetie. I didn't mean it.

  10. Carol: I think a nickname, however, WOULD be capitalized. In some cases that will be a little tricky to discern--especially when a man always calls his wife "honey". But he might have a nickname for her he also uses, like Freckles or Gingersnap or something, in which case, "honey" is a vocative and stays lowercase.

  11. Yes! That's what I meant...it seems to depend if it's a full-blown nickname or not. It does seem to look funny to me as capped, though. I think I'll treat it like "sweetie" and that ilk. Thanks much for your thoughts!

  12. Thanks for the advice ... It's helpful to see posts like this, there's always something we can take away from it for our writing.

  13. Joanne: English is a tricky lanugage, and there are many fine-grained distictions in our "rules."

  14. Laurel. You are such a helpful blogger. The error I bump into most often is the one where writers forget if they put an article or possessive pronoun before like Earth or Mom, it's NOT capitalized. You're a gem~ :o) <3