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Three tricky decisions on when to capitalise

Posted on May 5, 2021

 

I often think it would be easier if English followed the same rule as German and started all nouns with a capital letter.

This means words like “Apfel” (apple) and “Hund” (dog) always start with a capital letter, regardless of where they appear in the sentence, whereas adjectives don’t, even if they pertain to a proper noun. Therefore, while in the English phrase “French coffee” the adjective is capitalised and the noun isn’t, in German it would be the other way around (“französischer Kaffee”).

That being said, it isn’t usually too difficult to work out whether a noun is a proper noun or an ordinary one. There are just a few cases where there is a degree of ambiguity, and here are three we come across regularly.

1. Musical genres

It’s common to see writers begin genres of music with capital letters, as in “Jazz”, “Hip-Hop” or “Rock and Roll”. This is usually unnecessary.

Genres only need to be capitalised if they refer to a place or region, like “Latin” or “Southern rock”, with the latter referring to the South of the US. One exception is Motown, which takes its name from a record label and should therefore begin with a capital ‘M’.

2. Species

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know whether to capitalise the full name of an animal. For example, should it be an “emperor penguin” or an “Emperor penguin”?

This might simply require a bit of research. In the above example, the species gets its name from being the largest penguin – larger than the king penguin. It doesn’t refer to a particular emperor, so the lower case ‘e’ is correct.

Again, it comes down to whether the name refers to a place or person. The Galápagos tortoise, for example, is from the Galápagos Islands, hence the upper case ‘G’.

Sometimes, there is still some doubt either way. We had a recent case in the office with the Eureka lemon. It’s not entirely clear how it got its name, but according to this site, it was originally named the “Garey’s Eureka lemon” after a Thomas Garey. After much deliberation, we opted for the capital ‘E’, as it perhaps refers to a quote uttered by Garey.

3. (Some) brand names

More and more brands are starting their names with “little” letters, such as eBay and iPhone, but do these companies have a right to change grammatical rules?

I’ve written on this subject before. Where possible, avoid starting a sentence with a name like this, but if it can’t be avoided, make a decision and be consistent. If you’re writing for the brand, such as creating copy for its website, the brand would probably prefer you to stylise it with the small letter at the start.

These are just three examples of where one of the first grammatical rules we learn can be brought into question. As an editor, there are times where you need to make a decision and be confident and able to justify it. To learn more about content development and how it can help your site, why not speak to Engage Web?

John Murray
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