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Liberal orthography

We did not capitalize religious titles in an article on possible successors to Baltimore’s Cardinal William H. Keeler, and one reader is irked by our disrespect for the clergy:

In your article on the Cardinal, I noticed you did not capitalize Cardinal and Pope in several sentences. It would be nice to be a little more respectful. But then again, this is the Sunpaper. They seem to have reverence for the very liberal issues they report about each day.

The tendency in American English through the 20th century into the present has been to reduce capitalization. The Sun follows Associated Press style in refraining for capitalizing titles unless they immediately precede a name. Pope Benedict XVI is the pope on subsequent reference, Cardinal William H. Keeler is the cardinal, President Bush is the president, Queen Elizabeth II is the queen, Gen. David Petraeus is the general, and so on.

The Wall Street Journal, not commonly understood to be a Leninist bastion, matches AP style on pope and cardinal in its stylebook. So does the stylebook of the Religion Newswriters Association. So, for that matter, does the Catholic News Service. No disrespect is intended.

There is an odd kind of backhanded compliment implicit in the reader’s complaint: an assumption that a news operation of more than 300 journalists can achieve a carefully thought-out ideological program on all subjects, down to spelling and punctuation. But I see what gets written and, sometimes groaning, what gets published, and I know that that is just not so.   

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:04 AM | | Comments (5)


It has been at least 30 years since Lazlo Toth (arguably an ancestor of Borat and Stephen Colbert) expressed his indignation with the Gold Seal Co. over the fact that they capitalize their own brands "while my Mother doesn't even get a capital for her M."

Much more recently, I've had to remind writers that eBay and iTunes do not get to overrule the convention of starting a sentence with a capital letter.

If I'm not mistaken, not too long ago The New York Times's was so up that "Government" and "President" were the style. (Then again, aren't they the only paper left using Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. on subsequent references? Did they say "Mr. Hitler" in wartime reprts?

Incidentally, a tip of the editor's ol' visor to Mike Livingston. The two books by Lazlo Toth (Don Novello) are pure genius, even down to the typos, especially the first book.

A friend of mine who, until recently, labored in the vineyard of National Public Radio once was wandering through the News Department. A news producer was standing in the hallway, hands to head, repeating over and over, "We are not a liberal news organization, we are not a liberal news organization." My friend did not report if anyone disagreed with him.

You might be interested to know that the Army, at least, is bucking the trend on reducing capitalization.
Following hot on the heels of their decision of a few years ago to capitalize all references to Soldiers, came this last month:

HEIDELBERG, Germany - To further acknowledge the role that spouses and children of Soldiers play in today's military, the director of the Army staff has instructed for the word Families to be capitalized in all official correspondence.

eBay and iTunes do not get to overrule the convention of starting a sentence with a capital letter? Why not?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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