Thursday, January 7, 2010

Carolyn Howard-Johnson on Capitalization, CAPITALIZATION, and capitalization!

My guest this week is Carolyn Howard-Johnson, award winning novelist and author of the The HowToDoItFrugally Series for authors. Today I'm asking her questions about her book The Frugal Editor.

Welcome back Carolyn. First I have to tell you how much I love your subtitle Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success and using the word “frugal” for your series is brilliant. (I also love your unforgettable last name.) As my regular blog readers have figured out, I interview in order to ask the questions I want answered. 
When I was in junior high (tough school) the English teacher decided only 3 students wanted to learn and instead of teaching how to diagram sentences taught only capitalization. I still don't understand diagramming and it doesn't seem to affect my writing life but I got very good at capitalization. This was enforced later in my career as a librarian where capitalizing had special rules we kept secret from the ordinary public.

So, Carolyn, tell me, when did the rules change and why wasn't I informed?

First of all, the rules don't suddenly change. They change over time and they change because we (meaning lots of people) start to use something (like capitalization) in a different way. Thus, we have several style books and all of them are "right" and they all disagree on many, many issues. Newspapers tend to use the AP Stylebook,book editors tend (but not always) use the Chicago Manual of Style. All are listed as good (-: reading in the Appendix of The Frugal Editor.

How about these examples?
"President Obama said..."
"The President of the United States said..."
"The president said.." (not just any president)

"I toured the Chicago Public Library's collections..."
"The library's collection included..." (not just any library)

In both the library and the president instance, you are referring to one specific place/person. But it is not part of a title in either of the third choices. Thus, no cap would probably be used in most cases. But anyone who faulted you for using a cap probably would be equally confused about the difference between style choice and rules. Throw a little extra something in there, too. Rules have become more lax. 
Oh, and one thing more. Often English teachers teach us wrong. I was confused about the verbs "to lie" and "to lay" by the time I'd been through 15 different teachers with 15 different ideas and explanations and examples I wanted to cry. The thing is, it's really soooooo simple. They just didn't know how to teach it.

Oh, and one more confusing thing. Different rules apply in creative writing. It's OK to use grammar incorrectly in, say, dialogue or when you are trying to create a voice.

So, any secret tricks to getting it right? 

If you're a creative writer sign up for an online subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style. Or buy a real copy (a new one--not something that's 20 years old because it's cheap). And use it.

And read books by respected MODERN editors. That probably doesn't even include the venerated Fowler's, that everyone considers holy. That book can confuse a creative writer learning rule-oriented grammar. In fact, it generally does and that's exactly what happened to you, Amber.

We get caught up in the rules, confuse one rule with another, try to memorize a catalog of rules (impossible!). I have one dictionary of English (just English--not other languages except for some borrowed words from French, German, Latin, etc. that we've made our own) that is over 1 foot tall. I have at least a dozen grammar and style books on my desk. English just isn't simple enough to boil down to a few rules and a few verbal guidelines like the one that tripped you up here.

The rule you were taught went something like this: If the word refers to a specific thing (library or president) always capitalize. See? Kids, adults (and writers) tend to over think rules like this.

Some style books argue that without the actual name and/or title, it isn't a specific thing. Thus no cap. Other style books argue the opposite. The more casual approach is winning.

How do you not get in too much trouble until your editor makes a final decision?
Basically the trick is to decide what kind of material you're writing, and choose the style book (from the two I mentioned above) that most closely matches where your end product will appear.

Lacking the wherewithal for that, choose the more casual approach. That would put you in good company with "rules" like serial commas, commas after dependent clauses, etc. etc.

Oh, and one more warning. Never, never correct someone else's grammar. Even when you're sure. Ha! You could be wrong. Even if you looked it up! 'Cause that other person looked it up somewhere else.

Well now I know I am not alone. Thanks, Carolyn for stopping by!

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  1. Thank you for having me, Amber. Speaking of editing, have you noticed how blogs do funny things with pargraph breaks? It behooves us to go through our material a second time. Help! There are grammar gremlins after us! (-:

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Blogging writing and promotion tips at Writer's Digest 101 Best Web site pick

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  6. Sorry Carolyn, we're attracting spams from Anons. Is it us?

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