Proper Nouns, RIP

The edits to my TNI piece are yet more evidence of the slow death of the proper noun.

“Cold War” became “cold war,” “Neoconservatives” became “neoconservatives,” and “Realists” became “realists”  in deference to House style. Twenty years ago, all of those terms would have been understood to name particular things and thus require capitalization; nowadays, not so much. We still capitalize names of persons, cities, and the like.  But anything that also has an adjective form is now increasingly written in lower case even in noun form. (Don’t get me started on the demise of the proper adjective.)

“The Cold War” is a particular conflict every much as is the American Civil War, the Vietnam War, or World War II.  But it’s increasingly written as if it’s merely a description of an attitude.  Then again, while not nearly as common, I’m starting to see “Vietnam War” and “American civil war.”  Thus far, the World Wars seem to be maintaining their grasp on capitalization.

Similarly, “Realist” and “Neoconservative” refer to schools of thought.  Unless they’re derived from a proper name (i.e., Marxism) the practice now seems to be to represent them in lower case.  I prefer to capitalize Left and Right, when referring to political movements, to distinguish them from the relative directions; I’m in the minority in current usage.

Presumably, this is all part of the movement to make language less formal.   Not long after I learned the rules of capitalization in grade school, we began to stop using the upper case for such things as military ranks, government titles, and school subjects.  And, certainly, we had already evolved a long way from the days of the Founders, as one look at the Declaration of Independence will confirm.

My guess is that this will continue.  The widespread use of text messaging, Twitter, and the like may one day do away with punctuation and capitalization altogether.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. It’s interesting to relate this in a historical sense. Most of these disappearing hallmarks of language are relatively modern innovations. Take the Romans as a good example: they had one case (which corresponds with modern upper case), they used no punctuation, and they typically didn’t even use spaces. When you look at a modern copy of Latin texts, all of these things are usually added in for the convenience of the modern reader, but for the most part they aren’t present in the original texts (especially when said texts were stone carvings).

    I’m not sure exactly what it means that we’re “regressing” in this way. Perhaps it’s just a normal consequence of the written language no longer being predominant. The predominance of written language is, after all, a quirk of the last few centuries; historically, low literacy rates made it an anomaly. And thanks to modern technology which (from an information theory standpoint) is vastly more efficient at storing, retrieving, and conveying information, the written language is once again seeing a decline.

    Or maybe it’s something else entirely and my layman’s linguistic theories are far too uninformed to make any judgment. Like many (seemingly you, James, from the tone of the post), I find this kind of sad. Yet at an intellectual level, I’m not sure it’s entirely a bad thing (see my comment above about the greater efficiency of more modern information technologies).

  2. odograph says:

    I don’t actually capitalize my own name (either my real one or the pseudonym) on electronic accounts.

    This might derive from some Cloude Shannon thing I have in my head about information content.

    In terms of information transmission, capitalization at start of sentences clearly makes them more readable. Capitalization of people and places highlights them … but I’m not sure Vietnam War is sending a heck of a lot more information than Vietnam war. Maybe wars are just big and terrible enough to deserve caps.

    (it wouldn’t surprise me though if capitalization fell away, to the extent that it is decoration and not information content.)

  3. Joe says:

    Oh, PLEASE don’t say that Twitter and text messaging language will take over the English Language. I don’t even want to think about it!

  4. Furhead says:

    what are you guys talking about i dont see any problems with the punctuation or capitalization

  5. odograph says:

    BTW, I think it’s a crime that MS got to own Windows, as a word. But the alternative (without caps) would be windows(tm) everywhere.

    or more reasonably ms-windows, as it should have been.

  6. Alex Knapp says:

    capitalization puncuation spacingproper speling conjunctions are useless its not lyke reyeting needs 2 be preserved in particular forms 4 easier comp by future generations afterall lack of those thingsdontrelymayk it hard todeciphernowdothey scholarscan figure it out translayte if they want who realycares aboutpreservlang anyway itsall just dum

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Ever tried reading stuff by Edmund Spenser or, indeed, anything written before spelling standardization?

    BTW serifs appeared on typefaces as an aid to readability. Opinion has apparently changed on that.

  8. “BTW serifs appeared on typefaces as an aid to readability. Opinion has apparently changed on that.”

    There’s a whole study devoted to typefaces, and I’m by no means an expert. However, it’s my understanding that the prevailing wisdom is that serif fonts are easier to read in print, but sans-serif fonts are easier to read on electronic displays, due mostly to the relatively low resolution of said displays (currently, the BEST quality monitors have about half the resolution per square inch of the WORST quality printers).

  9. sam says:

    To quote somebody, comparing words to chess pieces, “The least important thing about a chess piece is its shape.”

  10. DC Loser says:

    wts wrng w dat?

  11. Is it because these proper nouns, as with many nouns, are being used more and more frequently as adjectives and adverbs where capitlaization seems out of place?

  12. Franklin says:

    Is it because these proper nouns, as with many nouns, are being used more and more frequently as adjectives and adverbs where capitalization seems out of place?

    Is this the same point, or a full explanation of what JJ already said (see below)?

    But anything that also has an adjective form is now increasingly written in lower case even in noun form.

  13. Franklin says:

    capitalization puncuation spacingproper speling conjunctions are useless its not lyke reyeting needs 2 be preserved in particular forms 4 easier comp by future generations afterall lack of those thingsdontrelymayk it hard todeciphernowdothey scholarscan figure it out translayte if they want who realycares aboutpreservlang anyway itsall just dum

    Why the hell is G.A. posting as Knapp?