Proper noun or not?
February 16, 2017 7:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm struggling with whether a certain word should be capitalized or not. It's a status that my employer grants to people if they fulfill the qualifications.

I've changed the details but here's an approximation of the sentence (imagine that my employer licenses people to eat food).

"Your change of class to Eating has been approved."

I feel weird capitalizing "eating" in the above sentence. Is an official term for a status a proper noun? I would never write, "I've been accepted as a Full-time student!"

I've never formally learned anything but simple grammatical rules. I'm mostly self-educated and refer to manuals a lot. I still get confused and second guess my decisions.
posted by Stonkle to Writing & Language (18 answers total)
This is not a matter of grammar or even what you can find in stylebooks like the Chicago Manual of Style. This is a matter of house style, and house style can be weird.

In your example, "Eating" certainly looks weird, but I can imagine a case being made where a common word has a specialized meaning in certain contexts, and you want to make sure people know you're talking about Eating, not eating. This assumes that the Eating/eating distinction is scrupulously observed in all communications, of course.

It's debatable whether assigning a specialized meaning to a common word like "Eating" is preferable to using a pompous title like "Certified Company Eating Specialist" which will inevitably be shortened to CCES so that no one knows what the hell you're talking about.
posted by adamrice at 8:01 AM on February 16, 2017 [7 favorites]

This is the same kind of thing where you can say "I am studying biology" and "I am taking Biology 101." It's the same word but the context is different.

And as adamrice points out, this isn't so much a matter of grammar as of style; I used to work for a university where we were always supposed had to capitalize department names and job title names, even when (to my eyes) it looked super weird.
posted by mskyle at 8:02 AM on February 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would not capitalise it, personally, but I've also learnt that people are SUPER WEIRD about stuff they expect to be capitalised.

Anything that's even remotely official-sounding, like a job title or qualification, seems to get capitalised by default quite frequently, and this bleeds over into other things where people want to command respect/authority - bang a capital on it and suddenly it sounds so much more stately! Or something. It usually ends up sounding petty-hierarchical or over-emphasised, drawing gaudy attention to itself and undermining its own attempts at status by being graceless in trying to command status (as far as I'm concerned), but people love doing it anyway.

In this case, it sounds like capitalising the thing makes it sound more formal and official, in a setting where someone's been granted status, which is definitely a time when people want stuff to sound more formal/official. I still 100% wouldn't do it if it was only my choice, but every editor has their stuff they will and will not budge on, and the amount of budge for me usually depends on who actually gives a shit about it, how much of a shit they appear to give and how much I care about it in comparison (usually less than they do, unless it's going to end up on a site I have editorial control over or somewhere customer-facing).

Appropriate language is all about context - what's your context? Is it your choice whether to capitalise it or not? Are there people around you who seem to really care about the status granted by this qualification? What are the stakes?

Assuming you've got a decent degree of control and your remit is "do what's correct and professional and that will be fine", I would not capitalise. But if someone in your organisation is super bought into the status of this thing and it doesn't compromise anything you actually care about, I'd consider just letting them have their way and continue to capitalise it.
posted by terretu at 8:04 AM on February 16, 2017

You would capitalize it. The status is a noun that functions as a title, and titles are capped. ""Your change of class to Doctor of Astrophysics has been approved" would not seem weird.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:06 AM on February 16, 2017 [9 favorites]

While there may not be a hard and fast rule here to follow, I think capitalization is definitely called for. I would much prefer to see

Your change of faction from Dauntless to Abdication has been approved

rather than

Your change of faction from dauntless to abdication has been approved /hungergamesnerd
posted by the webmistress at 8:15 AM on February 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

There is no such thing as an authoritative prescriptive grammar or style. Nobody is the anointed boss of either of those things.

The only cases in which anyone has any authority to prescribe usage or style is when they're paying or grading you, and this is one of those cases. You can make your argument that it looks weird, but ultimately, it's not objectively wrong. It's just against someone else's rules.

Unless you care about this a whole, whole lot and want to start a Big Thing about it, I'd suggest you just do it the way your in house style guide dictates.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:22 AM on February 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Agree with adamrice that it's a internal stylistic choice. Unless this is a new program, someone in your organization has written something like this before. Check in your employer's official publication or ask a coworker.

On a related note, here's an article on why a newspaper capitalizes Realtor.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:24 AM on February 16, 2017

There is no in-house style guide. Eventually that will be one of my projects. (I wanted to address this before everyone jumps on the house style guide idea.)
posted by Stonkle at 8:31 AM on February 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

My vote would change whether it is a generic term or a term of art or title of a role. Sometimes the same words can serve in different roles in different context. For example, "I am the general counsel at XYZ, Inc." means I am the lawyer who is the top-level lawyer who oversees all legal work at an organization, no matter the location or particular organization. (I mean, I'm not really in real life, but this is an example.) But, "I am the General Counsel at XYZ, Inc." means, in my organization, that I have a particular job status that carries that particular title, which is is different from Attorney-Advisor or Senior Trial Counsel or any other particularized role that is specifically defined within my employer. It's weird, because both are acceptable, but they imply slightly different things about the role/title.

So I guess the question is whether, in context, you want to emphasize it as a title specific to your employer's particular qualification requirements and your employer is the gatekeeper for that title, or if it's a generic name or license that your employer just has some qualifications for. If you really don't have a preference between one and the other, I would not capitalize generic terms even if they have licencing qualifications ("pediatrician," "gastroenterologist") but would capitalize esoteric terms that primarily only have meaning as defined by your organization ("Level II Eater").
posted by alligatorpear at 8:59 AM on February 16, 2017

I think there is such a thing as correct grammar and capitalization. unlike many of those who seem to have surrendered to anarchists. Here are three reasons it matters:

1. The fact that the company hired someone like you means they probably care about this;

2. Using correct grammar is a signifier that the company is professional and is likely to get other details correct, details which are likely to be important and material to their customers but much less visible;

3. People you care about will be inconvenienced, confused, and slowed down if they encounter unexpected grammar and usage when reading your information. Those who will be slowed down by incorrect usage generally outnumber those who will be put off by correct usage.

Here's a fourth:

4. Capitalization can change the meaning of a sentence. In your example, a party could be eating (at the cafeteria today), but that isn't the same as being Eating. This is easy to make clear when it's the sole focus of a communication, but in a larger context, the ability to make it clear concisely by capitalizing or not capitalizing is going to affect your ability to communicate.

My gut tells me that whether capitalization is correct here depends on the way the status is defined, but that capitalization is probably correct. However, in your position, I'd try to find an authoritative source -- maybe a university grammar lab or an accepted style book of which you can have a printed copy in hand -- because people do get weird about this.

Having an authoritative source, which you present in a separate conversation before you approach this and similar matters, will help make this go smoothly. Establish your points one at a time: why grammar and usage matter, why you choose this particular authority as a reference, how much you trust it and why to that degree, that you are a thorough but not dogmatic person who seeks multiple viewpoints before advocating for one, and finally what the authoritative work and your other research says about a particular issue.
posted by amtho at 9:29 AM on February 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Per mskyle and DarlingBri, as a title it would be capitalized, but you don't have to word it the way you are. "Your change of class to Eating" could just as well be "You are cleared to eat," the former looking to me like something spit out of a computer process: "Your change of ${category} to ${status} has been approved."
posted by rhizome at 9:31 AM on February 16, 2017

My wife is a veterinary technician, in that she is employed as a trained paraprofessional working under the direction and supervision of veterinarians. She is also a Veterinary Technician because she has completed all the requirements to be certified as such. She works with veterinary technicians who are not Veterinary Technicians (our state does not require certification to perform that role, though some do), and she knows Veterinary Technicians who are not veterinary technicians (because they work for a pet insurance company, or are administrators, etc).

I think it's weird that you are using a verb to title the status - if the sentence was "Your change of class to Eater has been approved." it would seem more natural, but if that is the official title your organization has chosen to use, it is perfectly reasonable to capitalize it to give it the special meaning that it now has.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:36 AM on February 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think it's being used as a title and should be capitalized.

The sentence you suggested could certainly be improved, and that might make it look less weird. I'd need the specifics to make it right, but maybe something more like "Your newly approved classification level is Eating."
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:47 AM on February 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Neither sentence nor name of status can be changed. And yup, the name is weird and is normally a verb.
posted by Stonkle at 11:02 AM on February 16, 2017

Wow I'm such a nerd that I forgot that my example was actually from Divergent. /alsoadivergentnerdapparently

I would love to know the actual word, if you care to share it. I myself would love to be known as Eater. Or barring that, Destroyer of Worlds.
posted by the webmistress at 11:21 AM on February 16, 2017

The aim of communication is to communicate, so clarity should be a big part of any communications decision. Consistency goes along with that--but only where it doesn't hurt clarity.

So, which is more clear and likely to be interpreted correctly by your audience? I think a capital letter, while not the norm for that word, could show just what you want: that you don't mean the word in the usual way; that it has some other significance.

If it'll be clear either way, I lean toward lowercase.

Then, be consistent. Document this guideline and help people apply it correctly.

(Agree it sounds super weird, though.)
posted by ramenopres at 11:56 AM on February 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Long time fed here. When I first started here I tried to make sense of the bureaucratic jargon and rules. Agree with the poster above who called it the house style. Capitalize away!
posted by fixedgear at 12:03 PM on February 16, 2017

My old job's house style was a bit weird; it bugged me that I had to capitalize 'Branch" even when it was a stand-alone noun and not "the Sacramento Branch". It didn't feel right, but that was the style. Also it sounds like you want to differentiate between eating as an activity and eating as a department title/class/division. Then it's a title which gets capitalized.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 12:50 PM on February 17, 2017

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