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God's pronouns

A reader in Iowa wonders what is going on with capital letters:

I always assumed that capitalizing "he," "him," and "his" when referring to God was a strict rule — a rule of language, not of religion. "Him" wasn't capitalized in a story in today's Des Moines Register (my local newspaper). The story says, "The biggest change since his accident has been in his prayer life, he said. He prays every day. He thanks God for sparing his life. He thanks him for each new day."

Do we only capitalize "Him" when we're writing religious texts, or was this a mistake?

The short answer is that we do not generally, in newspapers, magazines and books, capitalize those pronouns any longer.

Here are two relevant entries from The Chicago Manual of Style:

The “down style. Chicago generally prefers a “down” style—the parsimonious use of capitals. Although proper names are capitalized, many words derived from or associated with proper names (brussels sprouts, board of trustees), as well as the names of significant offices (presidency, papacy) may be lowercased with no loss of clarity or respect.

Pronouns. Pronouns referring to God or Jesus are not capitalized. (Note that they are lowercased in most English translations of the Bible.) *

The same practice with pronouns is spelled out in the stylebooks of the Associated Press, The New York Times and the Catholic News Service.

Before the zealots come swarming through their sally ports, let me point out that this practice has little or nothing to do with multiculturalism, and certainly not any kind of campaign by the wicked secular media to derogate Christianity. It is simply one example of the tendency in written English over the past century to reduce the frequency of capitalization.** For example, few newspapers any longer capitalize president in references to the U.S. chief executive unless the title immediately precedes a name.

So the Register is simply following what has become a convention over the past several decades.

 

* It might also be noted that they are not always capitalized in the original texts, either, since Hebrew does not have capital letters.

** As always, there is a countervailing tendency, as The Oxford Companion to the English Language points out, with businesses indulging in a riot of internal capitalizations in the names of companies and products.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:20 PM | | Comments (11)
        

Comments

It seems that religious writings do not always capitalize God's pronouns, either. I was in a group using one of Max Lucado's bible studies and he - a noted fundamentalist - used lower case. I, being older than dirt, still use the capital, but the bulletins and newsletters of my church do not. (Many of us believe this to be because spellchecker doesn't auto-correct it.)

In most companies with which I interact, Board of Directors is always capitalized. Also, Boardroom. Their own, anyway. You and your institution may be deemed only worthy of a board.

I have very occasionally broken style to uppercase a "Him" if I feel that there are too many "he's" being bandied about.

This discussion, the who/whom discussion and the demise of honorifics leads to only one conclusion. IT DOESN'T MATTER ANY MORE. Don't worry about grammatical correctness, because its too hard to learn. Don't show respect, it takes too many letters. Think how much newspapers save on ink and newsprint by not using Mr, Ms and other such honorifics.

This is a question that I've thought a lot about as a Bible-school student. I've had last-minute moments of panic and gone back to change all my Hs to caps. (What if my prof thinks I've turned apostate?!)
Then I realized my Bible doesn't even use capital letters for the pronouns, so I can relax. (Although it is handy to clear things up in sentences like "He thanks him for each new day.")

We don't capitalize to show respect. If we did, I wouldn't capitalize Hitler, Ku Klux Klan, or the TV series Wife Swap.

(Probably superfluous footnote:) Only the Jewish ("Old Testament") Scriptures were written in Hebrew, but Koine Greek (in which the Christian "New Testament" Scriptures were originally written) does not employ capital letters either. So the name of the Divine is not capitalized, even as a proper noun, in any of the original texts of today's Christian Bible.

Suddenly curious whether the political environment of 1604-1611 has anything to do with the capitalizations we find in the King James translation. (Were pronouns referring to [earthly] royalty capitalized, for instance?)

Mind wandering....

As for "most" English Bible translations not capitalizing pronouns to denote Deity isn't true as can be seen from the following exact texts. Matthew 1:1 (New International Version, ©2011)

Matthew 1
The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah
1 This is the genealogy[a] of Jesus the Messiah[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham:
Matthew 1:1 (New American Standard Bible)

Matthew 1
The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah
1The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, (A)the son of David, (B)the son of Abraham:
Matthew 1:1 (The Message)

Matthew 1
The family tree of Jesus Christ, David's son, Abraham's son:
Matthew 1:1 (Amplified Bible)

Matthew 1
1THE BOOK of the ancestry (genealogy) of Jesus Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed), the son (descendant) of David, the son (descendant) of Abraham

Matthew 1:1 (New Living Translation)

Matthew 1
The Ancestors of Jesus the Messiah
1 This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David[a] and of Abraham:

Matthew 1:1 (King James Version)

Matthew 1

1The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (English Standard Version)

Matthew 1
The Genealogy of Jesus Christ
1(A) The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,(B) the son of David,(C) the son of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (New King James Version)

Matthew 1
The Genealogy of Jesus Christ
1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:

Matthew 1:1 (New Century Version)

Matthew 1
Matthew Tells About Jesus the King of the Jews
The Family History of Jesus
1 This is the family history of Jesus Christ. He came from the family of David, and David came from the family of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (GOD’S WORD Translation)

Matthew 1
The Family Line of Jesus Christ
1This is the list of ancestors of Jesus Christ, descendant of David and Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (21st Century King James Version)

Matthew 1
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (American Standard Version)

Matthew 1

1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (American Standard Version)

Matthew 1

1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (Darby Translation)

Matthew 1

1Book of the generation of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

Matthew 1
The Genealogy of Jesus Christ
1 The (A) historical record (B) [a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, (C) the Son of Abraham: (D)

Matthew 1:1 (New International Reader's Version)

Matthew 1
The Family Line of Jesus
1 This is a record of the family line of Jesus Christ. He is the son of David. He is also the son of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (Wycliffe New Testament)

Matthew 1
1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1 (Worldwide English (New Testament))

Matthew 1

1Here are the names of the people in the family line from which Jesus Christ came. He came from David's family. He came from Abraham's family.

Matthew 1:1 (New International Version - UK)

Matthew 1
The Genealogy of Jesus
1 A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:

I defer to Mr. Redmond's correction, pointing out only that the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, Good News for Modern Man, Today's English Version, the New Jerusalem Bible, the Revised English Bible, and the New Revised Standard Version--the ones I can recall offhand that do not capitalize the pronouns--are not an inconsiderable number.

I think you have deferred too fast.

No need for deference. LMR's quotations demonstrate differing conventions for capitalising nouns that refer to God or Jesus. There are no non-sentence-initial pronouns so they prove nothing about capitalising pronouns.

It's worth nothing that all the Quran translations I've seen *do* capitalize those pronouns. However, in the original Arabic there are no uppercase letters. There is a convention, though, that the word "Allah" should be typographically the highest word in a calligraphic artwork.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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