Category Archives: usage

Addressing Captains, Headmasters, and Evil Overlords: Capitalization

You probably know that Captain James T. Kirk is capitalized, but did you know that James T. Kirk, captain of the Enterprise, is not? The same goes for Doctor Thorndyke, but not Thornedyke, the sadistic doctor.

What’s up with this? Well, individual titles are not capitalized in writing unless they precede the bearer’s name. Neither do you capitalize a title when it stands on its own, as in,

The captain thrilled to see so many green, alien women aboard the Enterprise.

The same rule applies to titles separated from the bearer’s name by a comma, as in “the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.”

You would, however, capitalize a title when it is used as an address independent of the bearer’s name. So, for example, if a character is pleading with an evil overlord not to burn anyone at the stake this week, your character would say,

Please, Master! Too few minions are left for you to burn Hildreth and Edric!

The exception, in my opinion, is the deliberate capitalization of a title that stands on its own, independent of its bearer’s name, when you want to indicate self-importance. For example, say you are writing a story about an extremely arrogant professor. He thinks of himself as indispensable to his university’s lab experiments, and so, when you are referring to him, you might write,

The Professor, of course, knew that the chinchilla experiments could not continue without his expertise in chinchilla psychology.

Now, what are the titles that you should capitalize? Here follows a quick list.

  • Civil titles (judge, mayor, governor, and so forth)
  • Military titles (captain, admiral, lieutenant, and so forth)
  • Religious titles (pope, archbishop, presbytera, and so forth)
  • Academic titles (professor, doctor, and so forth)

See? Not much to remember, and even easier to properly introduce your evil overlord. After all, we wouldn’t want him to burn you at the stake.

And Then the Werewolf Bursts In, Yada Yada Yada

Do you remember that Seinfeld episode in which George’s girlfriend constantly tells stories interpolated with “yada, yada, yada”? George feels as if he’s missing something in her stories because she resorts to this interjection without filling in the details.

In the same way, some Latin terms (such as e.g.) have become so common in English writing that we throw them in prose without really stopping to think about what they actually mean, and we assume that our readers know, too.

So, for example, you might write,

The monstrous, green octopus stretched out its tentacles and encircled the Mary Celeste, etc.

What the heck! The octopus encircled the ship and then what? Sucked the crew dry of protoplasm? Squeezed the ship into toothpicks? Gave the gang a group hug? What happened?

In writing, it is never a good idea to resort to Latin terms such as etc., et al, and Q.E.D. You may know what these mean, as well as what unimportant details you’re skipping over, but your readers won’t, and they will consider you unimaginative for resorting to these terms. Okay, so you can continue reading about the Mary Celeste’s encounter with the radioactive octopus and see that all does not end well for the crew, but why did you skip the details? Why not fill them in for the reader? Isn’t drawing the whole gory picture half the fun?

Not only that, how many people actually know what some of those Latin terms stand for? You may spend your days immersed in 18th-century philosophical tracts and can pronounce quad erat demonstrandum*, but unless the genre that you write in calls for such archaisms, your 21st-century reader (especially one for whom English is not a first language) may be confused. That precious Latin term you’ve just used may trip your reader up, waking her from the spell of your story and sending her to the computer to look up N.B.**, at which point she’ll get distracted by cat videos.

So, yada yada yada, the upshot is to always do the legwork for your reader. Skipping details or using unfamiliar Latin phrases annoys and frustrates your reader, and personally, I would rather look at cat videos than be frustrated, viz.*** by fussy language.

*”Which was to be demonstrated,” or Q.E.D.

** “Note well,” or nota bene.

*** “Namely,” or videlicet.

That’s Just the Sort of Girl Who I Am

Pop quiz: What’s wrong with this sentence?

The loud man in the two-toned shoes and plush moose hat asked if anyone had seen the shy blonde that he had been romancing all evening.

Other than the plush moose hat, where did I go wrong with this sentence?

Answer: I used “that” to refer to the shy blonde.

In the English language, we never use “that” to refer to a person. That refers to penguins, bison, Venus fly traps, and hot-air balloons. In other words, that indicates anything that is not a person.

On the other hand, we use “who” when we indicate a person. Who refers to the mailman, the trombonist, and to Lottie’s Latin lover. In other words, who indicates anyone who is a person.

“But Kate!” you cry. “I have a vampire/changeling/alien in my book! He/she/it isn’t a person! Which do I use?”

I would say that that depends on how you want to present said creature. If you want your vampire/changeling/alien to be on the anthropomorphic side, then use who. On the other hand, if you want your supernatural creature to come across as more beastie than human, then use that.

The difference is subtle, but by using this one word correctly, you can indicate to the observant reader how, exactly, to view your character.

Lay vs. Lie: There’s a Difference?

Yes, in fact, the words lay and lie have totally different meanings. In American English, however, the distinction is slowly being lost, so that you hear others say, “The book is laying on the table,” or “I’m going to go lay down,” when in fact both sentences properly use lie. You, however, are going to be smarter than to confuse the two!

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the word lay, in this sense, means “to put or set down.” Lie, on the other hand, means “to be or stay at rest in a horizontal position.”

How does this translate to literary use? Basically, lay is the act of setting down. If you are setting down a thousand unmarked bills on the table, then you are laying that cold cash down. If you are setting your magic wand down on your altar, then you are laying that wand down.

What about that sentence I used earlier – “I’m going to go lay down”? Well, simply put, this usage is incorrect because you didn’t specify what you are laying down. In order for this sentence to be correct, you must finish it with an object: “I’m going to lay my tired old bones down,” where bones is the object.

Lie, on the other hand, does not take an object. Thus, after a snowball fight, the snowballs are lying around. Lying takes no object, and the snowballs are already at rest in this sentence. And after you’ve won the snowball fight, you probably want to go lie down. Again, lie takes no object.

Essentially, if you are in doubt, consider whether you are setting down an object. If you can add an object after “lay down,” then you’re good to go. On the other hand, if you can’t add an object, then use lie.