June 04, 2007

Military capitalization

The adage that "military justice is to justice as military music is to music" reflects the fact that the military often has its own, odd way of doing things. Hitherto, that has not included English spelling, which is bad enough without military intervention. Unfortunately, the Army has not seen fit to leave bad enough alone. According to an article in the May 31st Stars and Stripes, Army Chief of Staff General Peter J. Schoomaker has ordered that all "command information products" capitalize the word "soldier" in all contexts, as if it were a proper noun. He has, furthermore, requested that the Associated Press stylebook and Webster's dictionary adopt his proposal.

General Schoomaker is evidently a smart guy - according to the 9/11 report, he argued unsuccessfully for attacking Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, which might have saved a lot of lives - but I think he's off the wall on this one. The reason that he wants "soldier" to be capitalized is that he thinks that it is respectful.

The change gives soldiers the respect and importance they've always deserved, especially now in their fight against global terrorism.

I don't know where he gets that idea. The standard basic rules for capitalization are that proper nouns are capitalized everywhere and other nouns at the beginning of the sentence. This does not show respect for the referents of proper nouns over common nouns or sentence-initial common nouns over common nouns in other positions. Similarly, the additional rules, such as the one that capitalizes titles, do not necessarily confer respect. ("Private" is capitalized just as much as "General".)

Some people point to the capitalization of terms like He and the Holy One in reference to god, and Bible, as instances of capitalization showing respect. Actually, I think that these are examples of the capitalization of proper nouns. When He is capitalized, it is no longer an ordinary pronoun, it is effectively a noun referring to one particular being. Similarly, Bible is the title of a particular text and so is capitalized for the same reason as Great Expectations. It is true that in many cases such capitalization is used for figures and items considered sacred, which may be the source of General Schoomaker's idea that capitalization shows respect, but it isn't hard to find counterexamples, such as the Evil One in reference to Satan. (Satan itself is capitalized because it is a proper noun.)

On the other hand, like other deviations from the norms of capitalization, this proposal would reduce a little bit the utility of capitalization in parsing English text and add yet another arbitrary fact to what the learner must learn. English spelling is bad enough as it is. Moreover, it invites variation in usage depending on the political attitude of the writer, and conflicts between the political attitudes of individual writers and the editorial policies of the publications their work appears in. People who capitalize soldier will be accused of being warmongers; those who don't, will be accused of not supporting the troops. Let's not go there.

Posted by Bill Poser at June 4, 2007 08:58 PM