God? Or god?
December 5, 2010 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Are there official grammatical rules about the capitalization of the words "god", "lord" etc. when referring specifically to Christianity (or any specific faith)?

I know these words are typically capitalized, I've always thought from a reverential motivation (so they wouldn't be capitalized when not referring to that specific faith, just a god). But is it also considered grammatically correct to do so? Example: I'm writing an essay exploring the interpretation of Christian faith from the p.o.v. of two poems. As I am maintaining a neutral, analytical tone, would capitalizing imply deference? Or is the Christian "God" maybe considered a proper name? Same question for "he" when referring to God or Jesus.
posted by Carlotta Bananas to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Proper nouns are capitalized, other nouns are not. So, as you note, if you're referring to the specific deity that Christians have named "God" then it should be capitalized. If you're referring to something more general, like "a belief in a single god" then it should not be. This is just normal grammar, nothing special going on here for the religion's sake.
posted by alms at 6:41 PM on December 5, 2010

This is not the province of "grammar." A comprehensive style sheet, guide, or handbook should address this question. FWIW, the Chicago Manual suggests capitalizing. Ultimately, it's something of an arbitrary convention.
posted by Nomyte at 6:48 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

According to the SBL Handbook of Style, which, I am told, is the Bible for Biblical scholars, just as the MLA is the book for English scholars, God and his proper names should be capitalized, but not common titles or any pronouns.

Additionally, according to the SBL Handbook [PDF] itself, "Avoid using gender-specific pronouns in reference to the Godhead (see §4.3). In those cases when such pronouns are unavoidable, they should not be capitalized (thus he, him, his; but for expressions like Third Person of the Trinity, see §4.4.7)."
posted by pecknpah at 6:49 PM on December 5, 2010

What alms said, with one addition: in religious texts, you'll see He and You and suchlike capitalized reverentially. Most people would not do then when discussing the poems from a secular POV, although if quoting you would keep the text. For example, one might say "the line 'adore Him' refers to God, and promotes adoring him."
posted by Lady Li at 6:54 PM on December 5, 2010

The Chicago Manual of Style has an entire section on religious names and terms. Basically, they recommend capitalizing proper nouns for deities and revered figures (God, but only when used as a reference to a single, supreme being; Christ; the Father; Jehovah; Allah; Shiva; the Savior; Buddha; the Blessed Virgin; John the Baptist, the Prophet; Saint Mark) and using lower case for pronouns (God in his mercy; Jesus and his followers), derivatives (God's fatherhood), and general nouns (an apostle; the saints).

Note that religious publications usually still retain the practice of capitalizing pronouns (Jesus and His followers), but this isn't a general practice for general publishing purposes.
posted by scody at 7:01 PM on December 5, 2010

Thank you! These are excellent answers. I guess I'll be getting myself a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style for future assignments.
posted by Carlotta Bananas at 7:10 PM on December 5, 2010

It's nice that there are special rules that basically repeat the general rule, but I still don't see how this is any different from similar non-religious situations where the proper name is capitalized but the general noun is not, such as "Earth (our home planet)" and "earth (is good for growing plants in)".
posted by alms at 7:17 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jewish people don't write the word out at all, an instead write G-d.
posted by Kololo at 7:18 PM on December 5, 2010

In the King James bible (and possibly others, but I don't know/remember) when LORD appears (all caps), that is a stand-in for the tetragrammaton, which I believe is transliterated as YHWH. If I recall my schooling correctly, ancient Hebrew didn't have any vowels in it, and that was the name of the Hebrew god.
posted by King Bee at 7:21 PM on December 5, 2010

I still don't see how this is any different from similar non-religious situations where the proper name is capitalized but the general noun is not, such as "Earth (our home planet)" and "earth (is good for growing plants in)"

Because nobody, when referring to Earth (our home planet), capitalizes the "I" in "It."

I mean, yeah, the general rule that you capitalize a form of address but not a general category ("Mom is an excellent mom"; "Our God is a jealous god") works. But not when you get into the "And Jesus spake; and He said..." thing, which is appropriate in some situations (a sermon) and not so much in others (a university research paper). This is why style sheets are necessary, because some choices are better suited for some situations, and other choices are better suited for other situations.

Jewish people don't write the word out at all, an instead write G-d.

This is not necessarily a general observance in all forms of Judaism, or indeed within individual traditions. A reasonable overview of the observance and its history.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:24 PM on December 5, 2010

Proper nouns are capitalised. Christians decided, rather arrogantly, that "God" should be regarded as a proper noun for Yahweh/Jehovah, and that view became largely accepted. Many atheists, myself included, reject this view as invalid and choose not to capitalise the word - more by way of a statement than in any serious hope of changing accepted practice, which is to capitalise it.
posted by Decani at 2:31 PM on December 6, 2010

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