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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Capitalization in Fantasy Manuscripts

   
Author Topic: Capitalization in Fantasy Manuscripts
MattLeo
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One thing I've noticed in many unpublished fantasy manuscripts is a frequent tendency to capitalize common nouns. This doesn't seem to happen with other genres like sci-fi.

Here's a ginned up example:

quote:
Willie hit the ground and pulled his Wand out of his sleeve as the Enemy moved up the path. He slowed his breathing just like the Teachers at the Academy taught him. He wasn't supposed to be nervous, because he was a Wizard.
Compare this to a non-fantasy version:

quote:
Willie hit the ground and pulled his Revolver out of its holster as the Enemy moved up the path. He slowed his breathing just like the Instructors at the Academy taught him. He wasn't supposed to be nervous, because he was a Federal Agent.
I don't want to pick on anyone, because this practice seems to be very common in fantasy manuscripts; I'd say maybe 1/3 do it. Usually the authors have managed to grasp far more subtle points of punctuation and usage than capitalization, so I can only conclude they've made a conscious choice to capitalize common nouns that relate to magic.

What do people think of this? Are people taking their cue here from some published novel?

Frankly, I don't like this practice, because I'm often not sure whether to regard the noun in question as proper or improper. For example, "The Academy" could refer to an academy, the precise one referred to being clear in this context. Or it could refer to a school named "The Academy". Or it can refer to an abstract institution; sometimes scholars refer to Academia as a whole as "the Academy".

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babooher
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This is a tad off topic, but I wanted to share.

A few years ago I was offered my first AP class to teach. The department head gave me the syllabus and one of the things we had to teach was capitalization. I asked if he was serious. AP is the supposed cream of the crop. He gave me a pretest to give the kids and said if they passed I wouldn't have to teach the unit.

Nary a year goes by without me teaching that unit.

Trying to push this back to fantasy specifically, I know that some of the more subtle rules of capitalization can be difficult in fantasy. For example, you should capitalize groups like Germans or Indians, but what about the inhabitants of Elfland? Are Dwarfs an ethnic group or are dwarfs not an ethnic group?

As for sword or Sword, I can't figure out why you'd do something so odd.

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History
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Proper name or not?

Sauron was known as the "Enemy".
Scriptural translation of ha-satan is similarly "the Adversary" despite no English capitalization equivalent exists in Biblical Hebrew (and here "Biblical" is capitalized to denote the Bible book itself and not the time period, etc.)

If Willie has named his...um...wand as "Wand" then it should be capitalized, just as if a character has named his dog "Dog." Otherwise, no capital.

Similarly with "Teachers" and "Academy". If proper names, titles, desginations (like military rank) then capitalize. Otherwise, no capital.

That's my two shekels.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob (capitalized) [Wink]

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extrinsic
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Capitalization of all Nouns was common before circa mid Eighteenth Century when Modern English settled at last into common and wide usage. Samuel Johnson was singularly responsible for initiating the downstyle capitalization movement about then with the publication of his dictionary. Which according to arcane printer lore was encouraged for the sake of limited capital sorts in any given printer's typeface cases. Sort is the name of a single cold lead glyph matrix. Out of sorts, you know, as a metaphor began with typesetters' frustration over running out of a sort supply in the course of sticking a galley page.

Society-wide, downstyle change came slowly to usage across the English-writing world. By early Nineteenth Century downstyle had caught on, in the U.S. particularly due to Merriam Webster's dictionary, which marked a first signficant departure from British English.

I suspect, though no one but the writers who capitalize common nouns would know their motivations, that the use of formal capitalization style of Middle English reflects medieval English era usage and thus the settings in which they cast their narratives.

Also, capitalization of common nouns as well as other parts of speech indicates emphasis, a common discretionary style practice, though, like with any emphasis, overuse blunts emphasis.

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Robert Nowall
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What extrinsic said, though I've seen letters written in English as late as the mid-20th century with noun capitalization.

If it goes on beyond a few select words, or even all through the manuscript with every noun capitalized...it's an affectation, intended to lend an archaic air to the writing, and as such, should be slated for stamping out. When you read / critique something with that, comment on it, and say what you think about it...

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babooher
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I'm not sure if this matters, but seeing as English is a Germanic language, I can see some historic reasons for the odd capitalized words since in German every noun is capitalized (but not "ich" the pronoun for "I"). Aaaah, grammar.
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MattLeo
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Well, I don't think there is really any historical support for the idea that capitalizing nouns was ever common in English. When I was in college I dabbled in calligraphy, and medieval scripts didn't have upper and lower cases, although letters starting pages, or references to God were often rendered in distinctive letters. Later letters starting sentences were likewise given a distinctive size and sometimes color.

The Winchester Bible has distinct majuscule forms at the start of each sentence but not for nouns: http://www.wga.hu/art/zgothic/miniatur/1151-200/1english/03e_1150.jpg. This was copied in the 12th C., well after the separation of Anglo-Saxon and Frisian, although of course it is a Latin text. If you examine the Nowell Codex (the only surviving medieval copy of Beowulf) you won't see any majuscules at all: http://www.s4ulanguages.com/beowulf.html.

Incunabula (printed texts up to 1500) like the Gutenberg Bible follow calligraphic conventions so exactly they are hard to distinguish at a glance from handwritten. From what I can see later English incunabula more or less follow the current rules as can be seen here: http://www.davidbrassrarebooks.com/wp-content/plugins/wp-shopping-cart/books_img/01483/main.jpg. Notice how this includes an example of the problem Babooher mentioned about the confusions beween race as a whole and race as a designation for individuals; it capitalizes "Centaurs".

By the mid 1600s newspapers were being printed in English and they follow the modern practices exactly. Private correspondence is bound to be more inconsistent in capitalization, even to this day.

I agree with Dr. Bob, in that common nouns can be used as sobriquets, in which case they become proper nouns (e.g. The Undertaker in professional wrestling, The Enemy in LotR). I disagree that titles are capitalized except when they are attached to a person's name. For example, I once met a navy captain (no joke) named Captain Jack Hammer. The Jedi master Yoda is called Master Yoda.

That's the most common mistake I see, capitalizing positions that can be used as an honorific.

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extrinsic
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The opus of Western writing contains ample support for the proposition that variance is more the norm than standardization. Two documents in particular falling comparatively close in time reflect that principle: The Declaration of Independence written in downstyle capitalization and The Constitution of the United States in formal oldstyle capital case. The Magna Carta in oldstyle. Poor Richard's Almanac in oldstyle. Early writing was all capital case, or majuscule, then became uncial style, then minuscule, then mixed, then widely variant during printing technoolgy's evolving influences, then followed a rigid standard that progressed toward less formal over time, then again today with texting trending toward all uncial or minuscule glyphs. Then there's the new-since-digital-technology camelcase or medial case. i.e., iPod, SunTrust, eBay, etc. It's new world order, anymore.

A discussion going on in writing pedagogy circles asks, Is grammatical vice grammatical error? Does locating grammatical error ursurp ownership of a text through favoring rigid standards at the expense of ignoring figurative expression? The debate began a long time ago, before Aristotle and before the Attic Orators. Prescriptive grammarians take one side, oblivious to adaptive and adoptive cultural influences, holding onto hidebound traditions against all odds; rhetorical artists on another side ever reaching for new figures of expression and fussily subverting written language's purity, elegance, and sublimity: Moderates recognize that a particular style applied appropriately to a discourse community suits decorum's demands but allows for variant rhetorical virtues for expression's sake. There is no grammatical error nor mistake, only decorum improprieties impinging written language's first principle: Facilitate reading ease.

[ April 27, 2012, 10:52 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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