Grammar for the People: capital letters

Grammar for the People2In the last six weeks, I finished my summer school teaching gig, got married, and moved to Texas. I’ve thought a lot about my former students during this transition, and at the strangest times I think of new and better ways to teach various first-grade skills. This, combined with the great societal need for a renewed understanding of how to use grammar, was the inspiration behind a new series.

Grammar for the People aims to straighten out some of our modern misunderstandings about grammar and help those who want to write correctly, even when no one else bothers to.

It is important to use grammar correctly because it is the set of rules that guides the understanding and interpretation of written language. We are past the “age of technology” excuse for our lazy writing. Technology is now the norm and without anyone heeding the rules of written language, subjectivity is beginning a furious reign.

We need the objectivity of the rules of language to know how to read and understand what words mean in the way they are used within their sentences and paragraphs. This is especially true regarding reading the Bible and guarding the truth. So here goes Grammar for the People: capital letters.

When teaching writing to first graders, one will notice the mix of upper- and lowercase letters in any given word or sentence. This is common when the babes are learning the differences and similarities between what seems to be two English alphabets. This is understandable. The little ones are trying to make sense of something new and they make mistakes. Adults should know better.

Two uses of capital letters will be explored here. Assume that when a capital letter is not needed, a lowercase letter must take its place.

Beginning of sentences

Capital letters grace the opening of each sentence. These uppercase markings are the way we distinguish the beginning of a sentence from the one before (along with end-of-sentence punctuation). With the rapid nature of technology, people easily forsake these start-of-sentence indicators. The refusal to use them leads to a blob of words that are strung together in an attempt to say something inteligible.

These blobs of words can easily be corrected by taking an extra two seconds to capitalize the letters that begin your sentences. (We’ll talk about the two seconds it takes to add your punctuation next time.) You might like to tell people that in this day and age you have a hyper mind and busy schedule, but that doesn’t need to be demonstrated in every hasty text you send. Sure, you’ll lose two seconds per sentence but you’ll appear better educated to your recipients.

Proper nouns

Common and proper nouns are the area where I see people have the most trouble when writing. People either capitalize everything that might be important or everything they think is important. This is not how it works. To understand how to use capital letters here, one needs to know what common and proper nouns are. Common nouns are common people, places, or things. Proper nouns are also people, places, or things but they are very special. Your name begins with an uppercase letter because your name is a proper noun. Your name distinguishes you from everybody else. That peanut butter and jelly sandwich you ate for lunch, though, is very common and gets no capital letters.

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In this picture (which I took in the bathroom of a restaurant in Louisiana), the T and P of toilet paper are incorrectly capitalized. Toilet paper is a common noun. I won’t argue that toilet paper is important, but there is nothing special about it. Using capital letters for emphasis (which I suspect is why they were used here), doesn’t work either. It doesn’t emphasize anything; instead it looks like someone doesn’t know the difference between common and proper nouns. And anyone who completed elementary school should know the difference. If you are looking to emphasize something, consider making it bold or underlining it.

It must also be noted that using capital letters for common nouns doesn’t make the ordinary extraordinary.  For example, if you are going to tell me that you are a Teacher, you are no more special than Lucy who is a teacher. Capital letters do not promote common nouns to proper-noun status. There are instances when common nouns are used as names (like when a new student can’t remember his teacher’s name and calls her Teacher), but if you didn’t capitalize the start of the last sentence you texted someone, you’re not ready to deal with capital letters in titles. We’ll save that for another day.

My Grammar for the People series will continue next week with a post about punctuation.

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