Any editorial desk, by definition, handles and processes a lot of copy, thousands and thousands of words every week for a small newspaper, and millions of them every day in bigger dailies.
Inevitably, spelling errors escape one’s attention, punctuation marks get lost or misplaced and sometimes even words get dropped; although rarely, sometimes even a whole copy is misplaced. These are the challenges working with words, and just like a glass slipping through one’s fingers to be broken into pieces, mistakes are made inadvertently.
But one of the biggest challenges that most editors have to deal with is not grammar, punctuation or misspelling; it’s probably the “problem of capitalization” in writing.
In our editorial desk, on a weekly basis, we receive many contributions from our correspondents, in addition to press statements by organizations, commercial or official entities and a wide variety of material designed either for advertisement or political propaganda purposes.
Regardless of its source, all the material we receive and read have the same problem of undue capitalization, be it written by a professional communications officer or a citizen just wanting to get a “letter to the editor” published.
The rule of thumb is that special names must always begin with capital letters, but names of offices, titles, need to be capitalized only when they are properly used in context. As for organizations, their names are capitalized only when the full name is used, mostly.
For instance, the term “prime minister” need not be capitalized unless it’s used together with name of the individual who holds that post. In other words, from a purely semantic standpoint, unless the title is associated with the name of the holder of the special name, that is the individual, it remains an ordinary noun.
Going back to the copy we have to process regularly, one can not help feeling that capitalization seems to be a way of attributing importance to the person or organization or even an object that is being mentioned in the text, or rather an effort in that direction.
This probably comes from the linguistic culture we are born into, whereby the notion of “big” is always associated with “important” or “powerful”.
Probably, unconsciously, when we write a word with a capital letter at the helm, we want to believe that we have added at least some sort of significance to the connotation that word will create in the mind of the reader.
Just as I was pondering on the wider cultural context of capitalization, I happened to run into two vastly different stories on the Internet.
The first: A Chinese coal baron, apparently with a huge ego, paid $1.5 million for his new mastiff dog.
The second: Nights have turned to be considerably darker in Tokyo since the tsunami disaster, not because of a power shortage, but because Tokyo dwellers voluntarily started to have their dinners in candle light to save electricity to make up for the power lost due to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Which subjects in these two stories, do you think, would prefer to have their names written in fully capitalized format?