Saturday, June 09, 2007

My Capital Offenses

Gordonliv at Ain’t Christian has this to say about religionists Using Initial Capital Letters all the Damn Time. His example: The Glory of God shall be upon Thee according to His Word, in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit for All Eternity.

Doesn’t that kind of nonsensical Font-Abuse just make you want to Throw Up?

However, Gordonliv goes on to say, in deference to the English language, all proper names should be spelled with initials caps. That’s how we literates do things. For atheists to ignore that, he writes, is “silly.”

I agree with him for the most part. It’s ridiculous not to write "Jesus," "Mohammed," “Christian,” “Jew,” etc., just because you don’t respect the people to whom these words refer. (After all, most of us still use caps for “George Bush.”) I think, perhaps, you could even make a valid argument for uppercase “Atheist,” if you actually feel — although I don’t — that we’re some kind of proper-noun ethnic group.

But Gordonliv is wrong about two words he cites, and I'lll continue not to give them the recognition that an initial capital implies. Here's why:

(1) god. It’s not a proper name. When a person uses that word, you can't really know to whom it refers. Is it the god of the Jews, the Muslims, or the Christians? Is it the god of fundamentalist, moderate, or liberal practitioners of their particular religion. Yes, all these magicians in the sky are supposed to be the very same god, but clearly they're not. (Here’s a reasonable Christian take, written in the context of creationists vs. non-creationists, on this very “which god is it?” issue.) For me, using a lowercase spelling reflects the word's ambiguity.

(2) bible. The bible is not a single book; it's a collection of books written over the course of a millennium. And, again, the word has a different meaning for Jews than it does for Protestants, and a different meaning for Protestants than it does for Catholics. Of course, I think the name of each individual book should be capitalized. But as a book-lover, I have difficulty emphasizing a word which simply means "book," as if it’s the only one that’s important — particularly when it really refers to an ill-defined anthology. I suppose I’d have no problem writing: God’s Greatest Hits, Volumes I and II . (Notice that I did capitalize “God” when it was a word in a title.) For Jews, of course, it would have to be The Best of God: Volume I. And for Roman Catholics, whose bible includes a whole section of apocryphal writings, the collection would have to be called

The God Ominibus: featuring The Adventures of God, The Return of God, and The Son of God, now all in one convenient volume.
Language is a powerful tool, perhaps the most powerful tool that we humans have. If we’re adept with this tool, we make informed choices when we use it. When I refuse to capitalize “god” and “bible,” I’m not being “silly.” I’m using the tool I have — English — in the way it was meant to be used: to convey meaning.

18 comments:

yinyang said...

Hmm. I never thought about the word "bible" that way. And, I guess I do tend to capitalize god (though I won't anymore). Thanks for the edumacation. :)

Crosius said...

Of course, if you were in the habit of capitalizing the word "god," the theists could argue that you lack the courage of your convictions. They can attack you for either behaviour.

It's win-win. Show a lack of "proper respect" and they call you arrogant or militant. Show any respect at all and they call you a hypocrite.

tobe38 said...

I think this is one that largely comes down to preference, but I still do capitalise God when it's a proper noun, but not when it's just a noun, as in "what sort of god would allow that?"

The amibiguity of the subject has no bearing on its status as a proper noun. "Sir" is a proper noun, and should be capitalised, but in certain contexts it may not clear to whom it is applied. If it's being used as someone's name, then, IMO, it should be capitalised.

What I will not do, ever, EVER, is capitalise a pronoun for God. As in, "praise God, for it is His word". That's just ludicrous.

Have to say I also thing "the Bible" should be capitalised. It is a collection of books, but "The Bible" is still the title of that collection. Why would the title of a book be capitalised, but the title of a collection of books not? You may as well not capitalise "Star Wars" because it's the name of the trilogy.

The Exterminator said...

tobe:

The point I was trying to make is that "god" is not a proper noun. It's no one's name. It would be more proper for people to refer to "my god," rather than just "god." Certainly, in the former circumstance, you'd lowercase the word.

As far as "bible" goes: Again, I don't think it's a proper title. People used to refer to the bible as THE book because it was the only one that mattered to them. But it certainly isn't THE book to me. If people gave a specific title to that anthology, I would capitalize it. But, to use your example, if all episodes of "Star Wars" were collectively called by ignoramuses "THE science fiction movie," would you capitalize that as a title? No way.

tobe38 said...

If someone says "I prayed to God", then "God" is being used, grammatically speaking, as someone's name. You can see this by substituting "Dave" or "Yahweh" for "God". It fits in the same way. This is all that is required, in grammatical rules, for the word "God" in this conext to be a proper noun, and thus have a capital letter. Who that 'peron' is, who they are and whether or not they exist etc, all other details like that are irrelevant.

I don't quite follow you about the Bible. No, I certainly wouldn't capitalise it when referred to as "the book". But you say,

"If people gave a specific title to that anthology, I would capitalize it."

Isn't that what the term "The Bible" is?

The Exterminator said...

OK, tobe, we obviously see this earth-shaking capitalization issue differently.

Nobody decided to name that omnibus of individual books "the bible." That name merely got attached to a specific anthology over time, because it was the only damned book that most people knew. It earned its capitalization from constant use by the illiterati who believed that it was, in fact, THE book. I don't. Hence, because I'm making a statement, it's lowercase for me.

The same goes for capitalizing "god." In Hebrew, the sky character is referred to using the tetragrammaton -- which, roughly transliterated into English is YHVH. That's Yahweh, or Jahweh, or Yahveh, or Jahveh, even perhaps Jehovah. But it ain't "God." That non-name also earned its initial cap from the unlettered folk who decided that their own skyguy was the only one. But nobody ever said that it was a proper name. I don't think it is a proper name, in either sense of the word "proper." This has nothing to do with my nonbelief, because I scrupulously capitalize Zeus, Thor, Jesus, Ishtar, and all those other deities whose existence I dismiss as nonsense. But, and again I'm making a statement, "god" stays uncapped when I write it.

I'll give you one more shot at a last-word rebuttal to this, and then I'll stop trying to convince you. You're a good writer, who cares about the language, and who seems to select his words purposefully. So go ahead and use your capital letters if they convey the meaning you intend.

tobe38 said...

Hey, I'm happy to leave it there. To tell you the truth, I used to be a bit of a grammar nazi - my mum was an English teacher and my dad is a languages graduate! These days, I pride myself on taking a more relaxed approach (although I still sometimes impulsively correct my younger brother when he makes a howler, and I get a glare of death for it!). Of course we need rules, but at the same time it's pointless trying to enforce them rigidly or argue over every last detail - the main thing is that we all understand each other. I completely understand where you're coming from, I was just giving my two cents. ;)

The Exterminator said...

tobe, as far as I'm concerned, your two cents is (are?) always worth a pot of gold around these parts.

vjack said...

Excellent post. I plan to bookmark it and use it regularly to make this important point. What drives me the craziest is probably the Christian need to capitalize He and His all the time when referring to their evil god.

MothandRust said...

Oh, ha. Just stumbled on this post trackbacked from my blog. It's a small blog world after all. I borrowed this post from amongst Gordon's forum... I better let him know people are commenting on it somewhere. They're not commenting on it at my blog, but them's the breaks eh? Ha.

I did break a personal record for blog views according to my stats today. Yay me.

Gordonliv said...

Hi Everyone!

Moth and Rust directed me here; thanks Moth!

It's been very interesting reading all the comments; I was particularly intrigued by the fact that tobe38 correctly used the punctuation at the end of his parentheses - I thought I was the only one in the World (note: capital 'w') who did that! Yay!

I can't remember all the details of my original post; I'll see if I can dig it up from the forum and re-read it. But I guess my point was that my 'god' in situations like this is the English language, not God/god/Yaweh/Jehovah or whatever you want to call Him. (Oops!) If it's correct in the use of English to capitalise the Bible, then I'll do it; not out of respect to the book or collection of books that it is - merely out of respect to my Mother Tongue (should those two words have had capitals? I don't know...).

But in some - if not most - editions of the Bible, the word "LORD" is printed in block capitals every time it occurs. This is not only annoying, it has no place in the narrative. It's incorrect English. So therefore I won't do it. And it's the same with "His" and"He" and other reverential capitalisations - outside correct usage and extremely irritating!

My respectful - and hopefully correct - use of capitals is borne not out of respect for God or the Bible or Christianity, but out of respect for the English language. The English language has given me the ability to discuss and debate topics such as God and religion, and for that I'm grateful. So I won't abuse the English language In The Same Way That Christians Do.

By the way, Moth... congratulations on breaking your stats record, whatever it was!

The Exterminator said...

Gordonliv:

I assure you that no one respects our language more than I do. But writers--as opposed to schoolteachers--understand that purposeful deviations in orthography and intentional aberrations in mechanics can help them convey extra meaning. I suppose that my lowercasing of "god" and "bible" is just my shorthand way of writing "bullshit." Since I assume that my readers know what the "norm" is in English, I know my lack of capitalization somehow stands out. I hope those "mistakes" provide food for thought. Essentially, I'm saying: How dare anyone foist upon me by fiat the idea that "God" is a proper name, or that "the Bible" is a genuine title.

John P said...

I'm sort of with you on the last comment.

I reserve the right to be inconsistent in my grammatical approach to religious semantics for the sole purpose of sowing confusion (you follow that?). I figure if I piss off the theists with an occasional linguistic diss of their god, maybe they won't think straight and make an error of logic when arguing (not that it wouldn't come naturally anyway).

And that's got to be a good thing. Right? :D

Gordonliv said...

Fair points.

I too intentionally break the rules to convey meaning or emphasise. And I have no problem with your use of lower-case letters to imply intentional lack of respect to those elements of religion which seem to have claimed parts of the English language to be utilised for their own propaganda purposes. Go for it!

In fact, I remember being told by my English teacher when I was at school that it is gramatically correct to capitalise 'he' and 'him' when talking about God or Jesus.

These days it just makes me wince and makes my toes curl. If I'm reading a newspaper article about - oh, I don't know - some church or something, and the author of the article starts reverentially capitalising 'he' and 'him' and other stuff, in a sentence like, "The stained glass windows depict the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, in which the Christ was taken to the Tomb from where He later Rose from the Dead...", oh my God... it makes me want to heave. It really does. And from that point on, I can't take anything the author says seriously, because he's revealed his allegiances to me, and they're allegiances I'd rather not have known about.

Here's another one...

Should we talk about "Jesus' life", or "Jesus's life"? Should we talk about "St. Thomas' hospital" or "St. Thomas's hospital"? Even in the Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslas", we are told that the geographical location of "yonder peasant" is "right against the forest fence by St. Agnes' fountain". Shouldn't that have been "St. Agnes's fountain"?

I think that it was Fowler, in "Usage and Abusage" who said that the solo apostrophe (i.e. without its attendant 's') at the end of proper nouns which end already in an 's' is reserved exclusively for saints, holy figures and gods (e.g. Zeus). Mere mortals like Chris and Doris don't get off so lightly. Too bad that their names already end in 's'. They have to suffer the ignominy of clumsy pronunciation! "Whose is this Bible?" "Why, it's Doris's!

I'm pretty sure that was Fowler. Anyone is welcome to correct me if I'm wrong.

But there is an example of where I, like The Exterminator, refuse to accede despite Fowler's well respected suggestions. I always use possessives in the fashion "Jesus's" or St. Thomas's" or "St. Agnes's". Why? Calculated disrespect, of course!

Still haven't found my original post. I'll link to it if I do.

:-)

Gordonliv said...

Oh hang on...

I've just realised - you've already linked to my original post.

Thanks! That's saved me some time!

:-)

rmacapobre said...

i use the word god in lowercase as a reference to the hundreds and thousands of supernatural beings worshipped by human beings.

theists like to refer to it in uppercase because they like to emphasize their version's self importance.

Anonymous said...

God is a name. It would be like not capitalizing the name of someone whose name is Guy just because "guy" is also a noun.

As far as the Bible. Yes it is a collection. So are MANY other books on the stands today. Are you going to tell them not to capitalize the name of their collection?

brtkrbzhnv said...

"It’s not a proper name. When a person uses that word, you can't really know to whom it refers."
Kind of like "Dick": You don't know if I'm referring to Cheney or Hickock, so I guess I should write "dick" instead. Yeah, that totally makes sense, as does writing it that way because "using a lowercase spelling reflects the word's ambiguity". Silly rationalizations do not make silly ungrammaticality less silly.