Who Gets Capitalized in a Novel?

I gave Detective MacSwain $200 and a diamond ring worth $1,000 to keep quiet and make it look like suicide. (Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest, 81)

“That’s nice,” the gray-mustached sleuth on my left said. He didn’t sound sincere. . . . The gray-mustached detective who had sat beside me in the car carried a red ax. (Red Harvest, 106)

Few readers will be puzzled by the capital D in the first example and the small d (and s) in the second. “Detective MacSwain” is treated like a name, a proper noun; “detective” (like “sleuth”) is a common noun. But what form would you choose in the following examples?

(1) In six weeks I’ll be promoted to detective/Detective.

(2) What are your plans for that bullet, detective/Detective?

(3) In the interplanetary elections this year, only two spots were open: the suppressor/Suppressor and the detective/Detective.

The Chicago Way

The general rule for names and titles in The Chicago Manual of Style is stated at paragraph 8.1:

Proper nouns are usually capitalized, as are some of the terms derived from or associated with proper nouns. For the latter, Chicago’s preference is for sparing use of capitals—what is sometimes referred to as a “down style.”

So in example 1, although both forms are acceptable, Chicago style is “detective,” following a preference for a common-noun, down style when possible. The choice for example 2 is “Detective,” since the word there is short for the full name of the person being spoken to (e.g., Detective MacSwain).

The choice for example 3 is less clear. It’s the kind of decision creative writers face all the time.

The Creative Way

In creative writing, Chicago’s general rule will usually work fine. But questions I see on social media demonstrate a reluctance on the part of many writers to follow a down style when they write out a job title, sobriquet, or other name for humans, animals, or other beings. Some examples of styling I’ve seen put forward in writing and editing groups on Facebook:

The Principal Overlord spoke.
They knelt before the Queen.
The elves elected the Elf Superior.
The Gods were angry.
They belonged to the Sarinths.
Was that a Chihuahua in her bag?
Was it a Ghost? A Zombie?
The Sheriff stood tall.
“Hey, Sis—how’s it going?”
The Rangers ruled the territory.
The beautiful Roan galloped away.

In Chicago style, only one of the uppercased nouns and adjectives in those sentences deserves the honor without question. (Can you guess? Yes: the Chihuahua dog breed is named for a state in Mexico and retains the capital C.) All the rest are open to debate.

Which Is Better?

In my view, “better” is when readers can remain engrossed in a story without frequent stops because something looks odd. But how much difference can a capital letter at the front of a word really make?

This passage from the first two pages of Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January captures beautifully what goes on when the first letter of a word grows larger than the rest:

When I was seven, I found a Door. There—look how tall and proud the word stands on the page now, the belly of that D like a black archway leading into white nothing. When you see that word, I imagine a little prickle of familiarity makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. . . . Because there are ten thousand stories about ten thousand Doors, and we know them as well as we know our names. They lead to Faerie, to Valhalla, Atlantis and Lemuria, Heaven and Hell, to all the directions a compass could never take you, to elsewhere.

Different genres have different conventions, and their readers are used to them. One of those conventions is the tendency to capitalize certain words in order to make their specialness more obvious. In fantasy, it’s accepted that there’s something more special about a Queen than a queen, especially if she lives in a world of sorcery and monsters. In a land of Doors, a Queen with a capital Q would fit right in.

In a contemporary realistic novel, however, a queen is just a queen. Giving her a capital Q is overkill. Ditto for detectives, ghosts, and corporate overlords. Outside of genre fiction, uppercasing such terms can give them a cachet and power they don’t deserve. Seeing them, a reader prepares for something unusual. Magical realism? Ultimately, they’ll be disappointed—or relieved. Either way, they’ve been misled and distracted by a red herring.

Such conventions are fluid, of course. Even within genres, there’s latitude. (In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, I found both “orcs” and “Orcs” throughout—even on the same page.) But assuming most of us prefer consistency, how does a writer (or editor) know what will work best for their readers?

To Cap or Not to Cap

First, if you’re writing genre fiction, know your genre. If you write romance, read romances. If you write science fiction, get to know both the classics and more recent titles. The benefits of soaking yourself in what you write will go far beyond just getting a feel for capitalization.

When you find yourself heading for the Shift key, check a style guide like CMOS or a good dictionary, and if what you see there doesn’t seem right for your work, figure out why. If you can identify a good reason for rejecting “down style,” go for the cap.

Reasons to uppercase regardless of style-guide advice:

  • You want a being to appear larger than life and unique: the Giver; the Great and Powerful Oz; the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.
  • Your beings are otherworldly and exotic: the Borrowers; the Orcs; the Shadowhunters.
  • Your character is an iconic type that’s not meant literally: the Girl Next Door.
  • You’re going for parody or playfulness or irony: She Who Must Be Obeyed; the Self-Aware Person.
  • The word or phrase is used as a name or nickname: yes, Father; aye, aye, Captain; Old-Green-Grasshopper.

Always remember that capital letters draw attention, and not many individual words deserve extra attention—especially when the goal is an immersive reading experience. A good test for whether to cap a name is to lowercase it to begin with. During revision, if a lowercased word looks weak, then cap it. And if the resulting “prickles of familiarity” strike you as a bit much, reconsider.

TIP
The examples in this post are limited to names for living or imagined beings, but what about mountains or planets or cars or secret societies? Chapter 8 is one of the longest chapters in The Chicago Manual of Style. Look there for advice and examples for styling the names of places, organizations, ethnic groups, historical and cultural terms, calendar and time designations, religious names and terms, military terms, names of ships and other vehicles, plants and animals, scientific terms and names, names in languages other than English, and more.

Sources

Hammett, Dashiell. Red Harvest. In Complete Novels, edited by Steven Marcus. New York: Library of America, 1999.

Harrow, Alix E. The Ten Thousand Doors of January. New York: Redhook, 2019.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings, 50th anniversary ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.


Top image: Detective, by olarte.ollie, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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