e e cummings and his iPod: Faith vs. WF again
I've been spinning out a series of postings on (several different kinds
of) conflicts between faithfulness (Faith: roughly, stick to the
original) and well-formedness (WF: roughly, make things fit your
system). Yet another case came up on the American Dialect Society
mailing list back in December: must the first letter of a sentence
always be capitalized?
Jim Smith asked on 12/14/06:
Although there are obvious and simple
ways to avoid this, if pH, e e cummings, or another similar word or
phrase is at the beginning of a sentence, is the initial letter
and Beverly Flanigan followed up with:
... would you all capitalize
"r-lessness" at the beginning of a sentence?? With phonemic
slashes [i.e., "/r/-lessness"], maybe, but how about if spelled out, as
In this case, Faith says to preserve the details of expressions
(including initial lower case), while WF says to make the spelling
conform to a convention that demands initial upper case.
(Note that "well-formedness" here does not refer to some absolute sense
of correctness, but only to conformity to some system -- a variety of
language, a style sheet, whatever.)
I posted on Language Log a while back on some
where points of mechanical style in writing are problematic when
material is quoted: order of quotation marks and periods/commas, double
vs. single quotes, general lowercasing vs. conventional capitalization,
indications of emphasis, the serial comma. Here, well-formedness
generally trumps faithfulness; original schemes for such things are
generally converted to the quoter's home scheme.
In many other details, WF will always win: except in very special
circumstances, no one attempts to reproduce type fonts, line divisions,
or many other details of the physical appearance of text. Other
details -- whether paragraphs are indented or flush left, whether a
dash is indicated by one en-dash, two en-dashes in sequence, or one
em-dash, and whether the interpolated material is solid with the
surrounding text, or separated from it by a space, etc. -- are
occasionally preserved, but usually not.
As for the serial comma in coordination, as far as I can tell, its use
generally conforms to the quoter's preferred scheme, whether this is
anti-serial, with no serial comma (the majority style), or serial
(which is my own): anti-serialists quoting people generally remove the
commas, while serialists put them in. This is WF. A notable
exception to this is in titles, which are often quoted
faithfully. The New York Times
which is pretty relentlessly anti-serial, nevertheless seems generally
to preserve the commas in titles (of books, in particular).
Now to initial capitalization. There are (at least) three
conventions at issue:
(WF1a) The first non-quote
character of a sentence must be a capitalized letter.
(WF1b) As a consequence, the first non-quote character cannot be
anything other than a letter.
(WF2) Personal names have capitalization on all their
parts. [with exceptions for some names in "von", "van", "de",
Expressions like "pH" and "iPod" present immediate challenges to
(WF1a). Unfaithful spellings like "PH" and "IPod" are
unacceptable to many -- probably most -- people. The question is
the status of faithful spellings. Some style manuals are resolute
about (WF1a); faithful spellings are unacceptable, and so such
expressions must be avoided
as the first words of sentences (you can, however, write "A
pH..." or "The iPod..."). If both faithful and unfaithful
spellings are unacceptable, we have a STALEMATE
Faith and WF, and the conflict must be avoided in one way or
The Chicago Manual of Style
(15th ed.) allows unfaithful spellings but prefers avoidance: for
"eBay", "iMac", and the like, it says (p. 366):
Chicago recommends either capitalizing
the first letter in that position or, better, recasting the sentence so
that the name does not appear at the beginning.
requires that things like
r-lessness is widespread in the U.K.
be replaced by one of the following:
R-lessness is widespread in the U.K. [(WF1a) trumps
The phenomenon of r-lessness is widespread in the
Indeed, examples with (WF1a) trumping Faith are not hard to find.
From "Among Believers" by A. O. Scott, in the 9/11/05 NYT Magazine
, p. 40, about a
literary journal whose name is n+1
... Keith Gessen, who edits n+1 along
N+1 is not the first small magazine to come out of this
But spellings in which Faith rules are also easy to find:
iPod is a brand of portable media
players designed and marketed by Apple Computer and launched in
iPodLinux is currently safe to install on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation
For Hill in 1821 this is clearly a new innovation as a prestige
pronunciation. r-lessness is thus not probably part ... (William
Downes, Language and Society
(2nd ed.), p. 158)
[Addendum 8/13/07: Marc Pelletier and Fernando Colina note a context where (WF1a) isn't really an option, and you have to use faithful spellings or avoid the issue: in writing about material in computer languages, since in most computer languages case is meaningful, so that "someFunction()" and "SomeFunction()" are not equivalent.]
If you take (WF1a) to be an inviolable constraint, then you're
committed to (WF1b) as well, and you can't write things like the
4,357 complaints were filed in 2005.
/r/-lessness is widespread in the U.S.
(1) is ungrammatical.
Instead, you have to avoid the offending initial character in one way
Four thousand three hundred fifty-seven
The phenomenon of /r/-lessness...
Example (1) is ungrammatical.
But, as we've seen, not everyone treats (WF1a) as inviolable, or at
least as inviolable in all circumstances. And some of these
people have no problem with some or all of the examples that violate
On to personal names, like "e e cummings".
For these, (WF1a) and (WF2) are both in play, and there are four
outcomes of the conflicts between them and Faith. Since I happen
to have collected some cites for "bell hooks" (and since, as many readers have now pointed out to me, the poet himself used conventional capitalization and punctuation in his name), I'll use her name
(rather than cummings's/Cummings's) to illustrate the cases.
. (WF1a) and
(WF2) are both inviolable; Faith loses everywhere. We get things
like the following:
Bell Hooks, who spells her name without
capitals, is arguably the most widely published black feminist scholar
plus sentence-internal occurrences of "Bell Hooks".
. Faith wins
over both (WF1a) and (WF2). We get things like the following:
bell hooks (born Gloria Jean Watkins on
September 25, 1952) is an American intellectual, feminist, and social
activist. hooks focuses on the interconnectivity of race, class, and
gender and their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of
oppression and domination. (link
plus sentence-internal occurrences of "bell hooks".
Note the spelling in the url: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_hooks. Wikipedia's software is
committed to initial caps, no matter what those who maintain the site
think; see Outcome 3 below. As a result, the Wikipedia page is
labeled "Bell hooks", with the entertaining warning:
The title of this article is incorrect
due to technical limitations. The correct title is bell hooks.
Another possibility is that Faith wins over (WF2) but not (WF1a), which
is inviolable. There are two solutions:
straightforwardly wins over Faith: we get "Bell hooks" initially (as in
the wiki page title below, and in most, but not all, of the rest of the
page), but "bell hooks" internally (as in the rest of this wiki page).
On the ADS-L, Bill Mullins (12/14/06) brought up a case similar
to "bell hooks":
A former columnist for The Buyer's Guide to Comics Fandom/Comics Buyer's Guide is cat
yronwode (pronounced "cat ironwood"). She is also formerly
associated with the underground comics houses Kitchen Sink
Press and Eclipse Comics.
(Mullins expressed considerable annoyance at people who go "to such
great lengths to make their name flout normal conventions of spelling
and capitalization".) John Baker added that the woman in question
opts for Outcome 3:
As it happens, cat yronwode herself
does not object to her name being capitalized when it begins a
sentence. She posted this on the discussion page for the
Wikipedia article about her: "I use lower case i and lower case
name (cat / catherine yronwode) but i do capitalize the first word in a
sentence. Some folks who like me think i insist on all refs to my name
must be in all lower case, but that is not so. Cat yronwode is my name
and my name is cat yronwode -- first letter of the sentence is capped."
. The conflict
between (WF1a) and Faith is a stalemate: no sentence can begin with the
woman's name, though "bell hooks" is fine internally. This
solution is not something you can search for, but I'm pretty sure that
you could find people with this system.
I have no idea what the relative frequencies of these systems are, or
even whether writers are consistent in the way they negotiate conflicts
between Faith and WF in different cases. (I suspect that I'm not
consistent: I have no problem with sentence-initial "iPod" and the
like, but I'm less happy with sentence-initial "bell hooks" and the
like; and I'm not bothered by sentence-initial "(1)" or "/r/-lessness",
but I tend to balk at sentence-initial "4,357".) But it seems
likely that all the logical possibilities are out there.
Having read this far, people often write me to ask which system of
capitalization is the CORRECT
one: what should they DO
I generally refuse to be directive, on the grounds that whatever you do
is likely to annoy someone or another. As a general matter,
conflicts between Faith and WF do not have clearly "correct" solutions
-- because Faith and WF are both defensible principles. The best
you can do is use capitalization practices that satisfy you
aesthetically and won't annoy too many people in your audience.
If you're writing for publication, of course, an editor or style sheet
will probably make the decisions for you.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 12, 2007 01:09 PM