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Proper noun problem:
October 22, 2007 9:45 PM   Subscribe

You capitalize "The Civil War", right? And you capitalize "The Civil Rights Movement", right? Do you capitalize "The Women's Movement"? Do you capitalize "The Anti-Globalization Movement"? What about the "Spay and Neuter 'Movement'"? Is every specific movement or event in history considered a proper noun – and if not, why not? Do I get to just arbitrarily decide what to capitalize in these sorts of examples, or is there some 'rule' that only applies to historic events that hold a certain level of significance – and who decides what is significant enough?

This isn't just idle curiosity – I'm transcribing an interview where the subject talks about a number of movements - American Civil Rights Movement, Gay Rights Movement, etc, and I don't know what to capitalize!
posted by serazin to Society & Culture (43 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd capitalize all those which were mentioned in your interview. You're correct: the difference between the civil war and the Civil War is that one is specific. However, I don't know if there is a requisite level of gravitas a movement must obtain before earning the right of capitalization.

The issue with capitalizing "the" is beyond me, though. For example, the New Yorker refers to itself as "the New Yorker" and also makes reference to "the New York Times." I don't know why "the" isn't capitalized since "the" is actually part of the publication's title.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:56 PM on October 22, 2007


You capitalize proper nouns - names are proper nouns, no matter their social import. The Society to Preserve Ballpoint Pens is a proper noun, and so capitalized. Titles are proper nouns, so The Ballpoint Pen Preservation Movement is capitalized, as is an abbreviation of a title or name, Ballpoint Preservation.

If you're talking about an action, you are not talking about a proper noun, but a thing, so if you're discussing the techniques of Bic buffing, you're talking about ballpoint preservation.

The Civil Rights Movement is capitalized, as it is a name/title, whereas civil rights are things, not a name, so not capitalized.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:04 PM on October 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ultimately, the answer is to choose a style guide and do what it says. If this interview is for school or for a publication, they will tell you what style guide to use. There is no one universal way to do this. A quick search seems to indicate, for example, that many respectable sources do not capitalize the civil rights movement.

Personally, I wouldn't capitalize any of the movements (including the civil rights movement). The Civil War is a discrete event that can be pointed to. These movements are not a single group of people or a single event, or even an generally-agreed-upon list of events.
posted by winston at 10:09 PM on October 22, 2007


I don't capitalize the civil rights movement. But I would capitalize it if a participant referenced it as just "the Movement."

That being said, I'm not sure it's as much about gravitas or historical significance as it is marketing and planning from the outset. Which event is more important in American history, the Watts riots or the Million Man March? Now which one gets capitalized?

So to sum up: top-down events get caps, like:
New Deal
Contract With America
War on Drugs

Bottom-up events don't:
the dot-com boom
the Stonewall riots
the dumbing-down of America
posted by infinitewindow at 10:13 PM on October 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


FWIW (and trust me, it's not worth much), the capricious and cantankerous Wikipedia mob has collectively accepted the capitalization of "The African-American Civil Rights Movement."
posted by HotPatatta at 10:21 PM on October 22, 2007


In all honesty, I would capitalize "The Civil War," since it was a specific historical event with a declaration, beginning and ending. I would do the same for all popularly recognized events using that specific name if they're "big" enough to have their own sections in general history books.

What do I mean by the last bit?

Well, I'd probably capitalize "The Women's Movement" simply because it has fairly "markable" historical start and end points (though these are subject to debate) - I'd say maybe from the rise of women's liberation movement subset of 1960s radicalism to the death of the ERA amendement. Of course, one could argue it began even before the Suffragette Movement and is ongoing, but I think the main thing is everyone will generally have some vaguely recognizable idea of what you're talking about when you say it.

The Gay Rights Movement would squeak by, as one can easily trace its origins in modern-society and it's now developed to the point where societal mores are being affected by it in concrete ways - the various pro- and anti- gay/civil union/wedding legislation, as well as formalization of gay rights in other areas such as its inclusion in the definition of the target of hate crimes, "partner" health insurance and loads of other things. It's an ongoing issue, but it has obvious starting points and has already changed laws, opinions and thoughts on the subject of homosexuality and rights.

On the other hand, the "anti-globalization movement" would lack capital letters, since it's not as identifiable to many people, certainly has effected little change and may turn out to be a historical non-starter, even though I'm sympathetic to its ideas. It's a minority sentiment, which shouldn't disqualify it per se . . . but the fact that most people could care less about the issue makes it something less than a true "movement" in my opinion. More of a trend. One I like, but I wouldn't capitalize the name of a trend.

No one believes that animals should be spayed and neutered as much as I do. But I wouldn't capitalize this "movement" either. Again, it's more of a trend. I'm am animal-loving anti-globalization woman who supports gay rights, so I'd like to see all these movements earn their capitalizations! But I do think that capitalizations of historical events should be limited to specific, non-nebulous events which are commonly recognized as such.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:24 PM on October 22, 2007


Not only would I not capitalize civil-rights movement, but I would hyphenate "civil rights".
posted by nicwolff at 10:24 PM on October 22, 2007


And gay-rights movement too. Let's start a movement-hyphenation movement! Its not like there are "rights movements", some of which are gay and some civil.
posted by nicwolff at 10:28 PM on October 22, 2007


You capitalize "The Civil War", right?

Sure.

And you capitalize "The Civil Rights Movement", right?

I would never capitalize that unless an editor told me to.

Do you capitalize "The Women's Movement"? Do you capitalize "The Anti-Globalization Movement"? What about the "Spay and Neuter 'Movement'"?

No, no, and no.

Is every specific movement or event in history considered a proper noun

No.

– and if not, why not?

Social convention without any particular logic to it. Don't look for logic in it.

Do I get to just arbitrarily decide what to capitalize in these sorts of examples

You can capitalize whatever it pleases you to capitalize, up to and including WriTINg liKE ThiS.

If a lot of people call you a fuckhead for capitalizing in a particular way, you're probably violating a social convention. Winston is right: if you're writing for a particular outlet, they will tell you how they want things capitalized, and you will do it that way.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:32 PM on October 22, 2007


I am struck by the simple brilliance of infinitewindow's methods, but I would add that some "bottom-up" events do *earn* that capitalization after a length of time beyond which the event's importance is obvious and standing and non-debatable. So I would capitalize "Prague Spring" or "1956 Hungarian Uprising," despite these being "bottom-up" events which also failed. I'd also capitalize those things which I mentioned above, with "spay and neuter movement" and "anti-globalization" movement failing the test of standing and debatability until now.

Would I capitalize the long-over and still meaningful "Watts Riots" or "Stonewall Riots?" Well I would, but I wouldn't argue too much with those who wouldn't. To some extent, it's a matter of taste. A quick Google search reveals that many people do capitalize those two events, but seemingly just as many don't.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:35 PM on October 22, 2007


Let's start a movement-hyphenation movement! Its not like there are "rights movements", some of which are gay and some civil.

Funny, but I suspect it's a losing war. The Oxford English Dictionary has dropped many of its formerly-hyphenated words - some 16,000 in its recent new edition. "Civil-rights" with a hyphen has already gone the way of the dodo, with almost no one using it in the term. (Including the OED - but do a Google search and you'll see the ubiquity of the non-hyphenated version.)

For those who missed the article about the dying hyphen:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/weekinreview/07mcgrath.html
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:44 PM on October 22, 2007


http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/weekinreview/07mcgrath.html

Oh, I saw it - I just don't like it.
posted by nicwolff at 10:51 PM on October 22, 2007


Guys, it really isn't this hard. Honest. Proper nouns are names and titles. Does it have a name or a title? Capitalize it. It doesn't matter if it's top-down or topsy-turvy, it's social or historical importance is irrelevant... you're confusing names with terms and terms with names. If you're referring to something specific, like the Linguistics Department Chair, it gets capitalized, as it is a name. If you're referring to something in the general, like a professor of linguistics, it's not, as it is a term.

The Gay Rights Movement is referring to something specific, where gay rights are general.

A civil war is something in general, The Civil War is something in specific. A drug war is something in general, The War on Drugs is something specific. The Civil Rights Movement is something specific, civil rights are something in general.

That's about as hard as it is.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:57 PM on October 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


At least as regards to "civil war" the issue is that there have been many of them. The term was invented to refer to Rome's civil wars (of which there were quite a few), and the name comes from the fact that most of them were in fact wars between citizens of Rome.

There was also an English Civil War.

So when Americans talk about just "The Civil War" they're referring to the one fought here in the US. By the same token, a Brit uses that term to refer to Cromwell and so on, and refers to "the American Civil War" to refer to the conflagration in 1861.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:08 PM on October 22, 2007


Slap*Happy, that's pretty crappy advice. People have names. Books, movies (etc) have titles. But events are less distinct. The Civil War is something specific. So is The Day I Got A New Job, but it looks pretty friggin' stupid when I capitalize it, and I think we all agree that said day, unless it refers to the title of a book or movie (etc) should not be capitalized.

There are plenty of events which linger between the Civil War and the day I got a new job, for which there is some legitimate debate as to whether they should be capitalized. The Watts riots, or the Watts Riots? And a billion others.

Your answer is a non-answer, because in the context of this debate, "specific" is meaningless when defined as poorly as you define it. "The Civil War" is no more "specific" than "The Day I Got A New Job." The difference is in convention, and that's what's being argued. Everyone knows proper nouns are capitalized, and your examples of proper nouns would cause problems for no one. No one officially designated that war in the early 1860's be "The Civil War." Convention did.
(Additionally, no one's arguing that "gay rights" or "a drug war" should be capitalized, so I'm not sure if you bring that up as a red herring or merely because you didn't read carefully. We've been way beyond that from the first post.)

Convention has not ruled on everything, and there are many things which fall between obvious capitalization ("The Civil War") and obvious non-capitalization ("the day I got a new job.") Among these are "the spay and neuter movement" and "the Watts riots" obviously. I'm not sure - as was the original poster - that "the spay and neuter movement" is really a definable event. Most of us would agree that the "dot-com boom," which is a specific, commonly-recognized event, would not be capitalized, which also contradicts your very weak reasoning.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:21 PM on October 22, 2007


I would not capitalize the various movements. When you're writing or reading about civil rights movements, there's usually repeated references plus lots of interrelated ones (civil rights movement, women's movement, disability rights movement, lesbian and gay rights movement, LGBT, transgender, etc., all interconnected and overlapping). Capitalizing suggests a thing with more boundaries than is often meant when talking about social movements. Capitalizing would also the piece look like some sort of 19th century (or 1970s) tract. (If there are 15 references, think how distracting all of those capital letters will read.)

I've read (and written a very little) re social-legal movements, and in the contemporary articles I've read (a tiny sample) the various movements are not capitalized.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:34 PM on October 22, 2007


The Day I Got a New Job may well be capitalized if it appears in my book. But I really doubt that it would be capitalized if it were discussed for whatever crazy reason in the NY Times or in, say, your book. So it's really just a matter of convention and context.

The posters that have said, in effect, "ask your editor and do it that way" are spot on.
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 11:38 PM on October 22, 2007


It's not advice, it's grammar. It's what won't get you an "F" on a term paper in a high school class with a tough grader. Any style guide will tell you the same thing. Google for a few of them... lots of universities have their own. The one I double-checked myself on was UTexas', which was the second hit in Google.

The Spay and Neuter Movement is a title, it refers to a specific. "The day I got a new job" is not a title on its own, but a descriptor of an event. Here's the kicker: if you apply it as a consistent title to an event, as in a short story where you have named an event The Day I Got a New Job, and refer to it as a discrete entity, capitalizing it is correct. Annoying and contrived, but correct.

If you are referring to the day itself, "The Day I Got a New Job" is incorrect. If you're referring to an event you or anyone else have named "The Day I Got a New Job", it's correct. Convention and consensus is irrelevant.

I'm not a pinch-faced stickler for grammar, or even a careful student of it, or any sort of student of it, but seriously, you're overthinking this. Honest.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:44 PM on October 22, 2007


How about caps lock day?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:03 AM on October 23, 2007


Dunno, S*H; it looks to me like you're underthinking it.

It's what won't get you an "F" on a term paper in a high school class with a tough grader. Any style guide will tell you the same thing. Google for a few of them... lots of universities have their own. The one I double-checked myself on was UTexas', which was the second hit in Google.

The UTexas does not speak directly to the capitalisation of the names of social movements. And other style guides disagree with you, including the Chicago Manual of Style, which gives "the civil rights movement" as an example of where not to capitalise (at 7.68).

I guess the editors of Chicago Style flunked high school, huh?

So, my answer:

1. Ask your editor.
2. If you don't have an editor, pick a style guide and follow it.
3. If it looks wrong, change it.

If I was doing it, I'd use:

... the Civil War ... (without capitalising The)
... the civil rights movement ...
... the women's movement ...
posted by robcorr at 2:15 AM on October 23, 2007


Of all the things in your question, only the Civil War is correctly capitalized. Everything else is abnormal.
posted by oaf at 5:01 AM on October 23, 2007


The Spay and Neuter Movement is a title, it refers to a specific.

No, "spay and neuter" is an adjectival form modifying movement. It's no more specific than "that red convertible" or "Homer's house on 742 Evergreen."

The mistake you're making is thinking that the spay and neuter movement or the civil rights movement has a name in the same sense that you or I do. These terms are just catchall terms for a bunch of sometimes-conflicting organizations with sometimes-conflicting goals and sometimes-conflicting ways of achieving them. They are applied for convenience. There is no Spay And Neuter Movement, there is only the ASPCA and the Humane Society. There is no civil rights movement, there is only the NAACP and the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

They would only get capitalized if you were using a style guide that said to.

Convention and consensus is irrelevant.

Not if you want to be taken seriously.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:18 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


I had this question come up yesterday when I was editing a piece. I capped Civil War and made civil rights movement lowercase.

So there's one editor's data point.
posted by limeonaire at 5:30 AM on October 23, 2007


(To be clear: I'd leave everything in your list lowercase except for the Civil War.)
posted by limeonaire at 5:31 AM on October 23, 2007


Nthing lowercase except Civil War.
posted by desuetude at 5:58 AM on October 23, 2007


The actual answer is what Winston and robcorr said. If you're writing for yourself, you can capitalize or not capitalize anything you want. If you're writing for publication, though, a style guide is in effect, and the style guide has already thought out all these problems for you.

There are no hard-and-fast rules, just agreements and conventions to give publications consistent looks and easy readability.

So the question you should ask next is: what style guide (or guidelines) am I expected to use? Chicago? MLA? APA? AP? Individual magazine's or newspaper's? Once you know what reference guide to use, you will just apply the rules given in the book.

Any other answers in the thread that don't reference a style guideline are individual perspectives, and will be idiosyncratic.
posted by Miko at 7:32 AM on October 23, 2007


apply the rules given in the book*

Or by your editor.

And if this is an edited piece, if you make the wrong choice, the editor will probably just correct it.
posted by Miko at 7:34 AM on October 23, 2007


It's the Civil War, not The Civil War, and is the only one of your examples I would capitalize. The usage of "the" instead of "a" otherwise effectively communicates that you mean a specific movement.

The Americans and the English each fought a civil war. An American would say that the civil war which prominently featured Generals Grant & Lee was the Civil War, whereas in England, "the Civil War" would refer to the Cromwellian revolution (also known as the English Revolution). "The English Civil War" is a song by the Clash or The Clash, depending on your style guide.
posted by fidelity at 8:02 AM on October 23, 2007


Nthing the advice to pick a style guide (preferably the one preferred by the publisher of your work) a follow it. In Hacker's A Writer's Reference, 5th edition (because it's right here under my elbow), the section on capitalization (M3) states: "Capitalize proper nouns and words derived from them; do not capitalize common nouns" (281). She goes on to define proper nouns rather broadly to include "organizations, political parties; historical movements, periods, events, documents; specific electronic sources; and trade names" (282).

Just a data point. I personally refuse to capitalize Word Wide Web or Internet, even though both of those are given as examples. I also have a 6th edition, but not with me at the moment. I suspect some of that advice might have changed since 2003.
posted by wheat at 9:33 AM on October 23, 2007


wheat, you're patently wrong on those: "Internet" is the proper noun distinguishing one publicly-available network from the many other internets out there, and "World Wide Web" is the proper noun describing all interconnected content available over HTTP on the Internet. Capitalize both.

(And when you refer to some other, uncapitalized, "world-wide web", you better damn well hyphenate it!)
posted by nicwolff at 9:59 AM on October 23, 2007


So Bush was right?

the Clash or The Clash, depending on your style guide

For bands I look at their albums, so it's The Clash, compared to Eagles.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:03 AM on October 23, 2007


nicwolff: it all comes down to convention, not logic. So I'm only patently wrong with respect to a particular style guide or other. When it matters, I go by whatever style guide governs the context. But, I think your argument makes sense. You may have converted me. But it still feels a bit like capitalizing the Atmosphere or the Ocean to me. The net and the web have become such ubiquitous things that they don't seem to be proper nouns in the same sense that the United States, the Civil War, even the Civil Rights Movement are.

I mean, when I go to "the New York Public Library" instead of just "the library," there's a clear distinction between a specific thing and a garden-variety one. But I if find something on the internet or on the web, no one wonders if I might have really meant some corporate or otherwise private intranet, some file server on my home network, or some local install of Apache serving HTTP content over the same, do they? Hence the fuzziness in my head.

I should probably just fall in line. Have no fear about hyphens, though. I'm a huge fan of them.
posted by wheat at 11:48 AM on October 23, 2007


Wow, lots of ignorance here. Thank god for my fellow editors.

The Gay Rights Movement is referring to something specific
The Spay and Neuter Movement is a title, it refers to a specific.
I'm not a pinch-faced stickler for grammar, or even a careful student of it, or any sort of student of it


Yeah, that last bit is very clear. You have no idea what you're talking about, and should stop pretending you do. "The gay rights movement" is not capitalized, and your feelings about its being "specific" (whatever that might mean) are beside the point; that goes double for "the spay and neuter movement." Capitalization is not some kind of badge of honor, nor is it based on logic; it's based on usage. Wars, by convention, are capitalized, but movements are not—in English, that is. Note that months and days of the week are capitalized in English but not in many languages. It's all convention. What I would recommend when in doubt is to use Google Books (not regular Google, where you get the Hive Mind of Idiot Humanity in all its illiterate glory); if most of the respectable-looking books that use a phrase capitalize it, you're probably on safe ground doing so yourself.

wheat, you're patently wrong on those: "Internet" is the proper noun distinguishing one publicly-available network from the many other internets out there, and "World Wide Web" is the proper noun describing all interconnected content available over HTTP on the Internet. Capitalize both.


No, sorry, you're wrong. As I said above, it's convention, not logic or "grammar" (as misunderstood by so many people); "internet" is slowly but surely losing its capital, just as "base-ball" lost its hyphen. Usage is all.

The issue with capitalizing "the" is beyond me, though. For example, the New Yorker refers to itself as "the New Yorker" and also makes reference to "the New York Times." I don't know why "the" isn't capitalized since "the" is actually part of the publication's title.


The New Yorker is a delightful publication, but its stylistic idiosyncrasies (like the dieresis in "coöperate") make it useless as a guide for anyone else. Normal publications go by the masthead title, as you suggest; it's The New York Times and The New Yorker, and I've spent an amazing amount of time looking things up for a book I've been copyediting to make sure that (for instance) it's The Chicago Daily News but the Chicago Tribune, The New York Herald but the New York Tribune (long defunct, those last two). Oh, and it's National Review and National Journal—no "the" in either case. Some might call it insane pickiness, but I love it, which is why I'm a copyeditor.
posted by languagehat at 12:23 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Languagehat and others who point to the conventions around capitalization - your analysis seems to be the 'best answer' in the sense that if I follow the convention, my writing will be viewed as 'right' instead of 'wrong'. Also, I think a lot of caps use inhibits readability, so I tend to want to capitalize less rather than more.

On the other hand, this conversation really reinfoces to me how caps are used so arbitrarily - and do seem to lend a certain validity to, for example, wars over movements. I guess some might say that caps don't lend validity or authority, but I think they formalize the event or organization or whatnot to the reader. (Also, some examples that came up in this thread - for example, the New Deal or the War on Drugs really point out the absolute arbitraryness of it all. I mean, the War on Drugs is much less discreet than the American Civil Rights Movement, yet by virtue of how it was designed and promoted, it gets caps.)

Since most of what I write is about politics, activism, and movements, all of this is extra loaded for me. If I capitalize the Civil War and not the Civil Rights Movement, I feel that I'm lending a sort of validity to the war as a specific event in a way that I'm not to the Civil Rights Movement.

Since I'm not a big fan of caps, I wish I could just start UNcaping everything except the first letter of each sentance. It would be more fair!

I know for most commentors here, language isn't (or shouldn't be) a tool to promote a certain ideology, but from where I see it, language does promote an ideology either way.

And if the guideline around pronounciation basically comes down to convetion, we should probably be aware that conventions change, and we have the power to change, or at least influence convention.

Anyway, thanks all for your help on this. I still don't have a great sense of what to do, but I do now have a sense of what the majority expects when they're reading, which helps a lot.

Thanks!
posted by serazin at 12:54 PM on October 23, 2007


And if the guideline around pronounciation basically comes down to convetion

uh, I meant, "and if hte guidelines around capitalization basically come down to convention..."
posted by serazin at 12:56 PM on October 23, 2007


Jesus, I didn't mean 'hte' either!
posted by serazin at 12:57 PM on October 23, 2007


Serazin, here's what to do: Look it up in The Chicago Manual of Style. There are other style guides to choose from, but there's no safer choice than Chicago for ending an argument about usage.
posted by gum at 1:06 PM on October 23, 2007


Most people don't have Chicago at hand, which is why I suggested Google Books—it's not authoritative in the same way, but it's available to everyone.
posted by languagehat at 1:28 PM on October 23, 2007


As I said above, it's convention, not logic or "grammar" (as misunderstood by so many people); "internet" is slowly but surely losing its capital, just as "base-ball" lost its hyphen. Usage is all.

Says you. The near-unanimous results at Google Books, on the other hand, agree with Chicago and me that "Internet" and "World Wide Web" are the correct current usages.
posted by nicwolff at 2:29 PM on October 23, 2007


MetaFilter: Some might call it insane pickiness, but I love it.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:31 PM on October 23, 2007


I tend to want to capitalize less rather than more.

I think that's a good instinct, Serazin.

And I suppose it's why I use internet and not Internet, regardless of what Chicago and Google Books say: see number 3.
posted by robcorr at 10:55 PM on October 23, 2007


Says you.

Yeah, says me, and I'm right.

[blah blah] agree with Chicago and me that "Internet" and "World Wide Web" are the correct current usages.

I agree about current usage. I am postulating (correctly) that usage will move slowly but surely in the direction of lower-case.
posted by languagehat at 9:18 AM on October 24, 2007


Members of the American Copy Editors Society (their discussion board at www.copydesk.org) can answer questions about style (capitalization, abbreviations, etc.) at major U.S. newspapers, and some not-so-major papers. The ACES site also has helpful links to editing guidelines and resources.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 9:57 PM on October 24, 2007


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