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Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 26, 2015 9:21 am

Few issues of writing mechanics carry with them faith-related baggage, but the issue of whether or not to capitalize pronouns that pertain to God certainly does. As much as possible, I hope to address this from the standpoint of making your writing publishable and effective. It’s not theology, it’s writing.

First, here’s a note from the 2004 version of Zondervan’s publication The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style:

“Capitalize all commonly accepted names for the persons of the Trinity. Also capitalize names of deities from other faiths and from mythology. Lowercase, however, the pronouns referring to persons of the Trinity (and deities of other religions).

My cousin, Steve Buttry, who is a journalism professor and was once the religion editor of the Des Moines Register, tells me that AP style (used by most news organizations) also recommends lowercase pronouns for the deity.

I realize that flies in the face of what many of us are familiar with—we’ve seen those uppercase pronouns in hymnals and poetry and Christian writing all our lives. But in contemporary writing, in most cases, those pronouns should be written in lowercase, for the following reasons:

1. Capitalization (or lack thereof) is not used to indicate respect. If that were the case, we’d see sentences like

The Teacher won an award for Her program of supplying free backpacks.

Similarly, we don’t write

In 1945, hitler and his troops were facing sure defeat.

The function of capitalization is to distinguish specific people or places (Piper, Indiana) from general ones (granddaughter, state).

2. Capitalizing divine pronouns dates your writing. The capitalizations (along with obsolete language like thy and doest) are remnants from an earlier age.

Using capitalized divine pronouns will look very strange to younger readers who are not accustomed to seeing the older way of writing, and to non-believers or people who are new to faith. In fact, it may be rather off-putting to them in its oddness. We certainly don’t want to cause readers to stop reading what we’ve written because they are discomforted by the mechanics. We don’t want our writing conventions to make the readers feel like we’re part of a club with arcane rules, and they’re standing on the outside.

3. Some might say that it’s necessary to use the capitalized He to distinguish Jesus from other males who are on the scene. That should not be an issue for good writers, any more than it’s necessary to use different fonts to distinguish pronouns in any scenario in which there are two or more people of the same gender present.

4. I haven’t looked at every version of the Bible, but of the ones I examined online, only two (the NASV and the NKJV) used capitalized divine pronouns. Many very popular translations (ESV, KJV, NIV, RSV, MSG, ASV, TLE…) use lowercase pronouns for the divinity.

I know some of you are shouting at your computers right now, and that you’ll always continue to capitalize He and Him and His when referring to God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit. To you, I’d say this:

• If that’s where you’re most comfortable, by all means, do it. I’m the person who creates lyrics slides for my church, and I capitalize them on those slides, because that’s more comfortable for my community of believers. However…

• If you’re looking to get your writing published, check with the style guides of that publication. Some will insist on lower case, and you’ll want to comply with their wishes. Some will insist on capitalization, and you’ll want to know that, too.

• Please consider carefully how you’ll deal with this if your audience is younger people or the unchurched. Their comfort level may be more important than your own, if your writing is going to reach them. However, if your audience is older Christians who are accustomed to the capitalized pronouns, continue doing that.

My idea for this lesson came about when I was editing a book for FaithWriter Sally Hanan this week. She chose to use lowercase pronouns, and when I asked her for her reason, she told me this: “Pronouns were never capitalized until someone decided it would be more reverent to do so for God, but I'm pretty sure that person was not an editor. While it always feels good to honor God is whatever way possible, adding capital letters to pronouns should never be one of them--doing so leads to a murky path of adding capitals all over the page and never knowing where to stop.” By the way, you can get her book, Empower Yourself, here.

A few final notes: If you’re quoting from the Bible, use the capitalization style of the version you’re quoting. If that version has lowercase divine pronouns, you have to use them in your quoted verse(s). The opposite is also true.

In view of #1 above, the word Satan should be capitalized. It has nothing to do with respect. It’s just the way English works.

Finally, I’ve frequently been surprised to see Bible written in lower case in Writing Challenge entries. It’s always capitalized, as the title of a specific book. Strangely, the adjective biblical is lowercase (I don’t know why). The word Scripture is not so cut-and-dried; I can find sites that say to capitalize it, and others that say the opposite. You can pick.

HOMEWORK:

If you’re one of those people who will always use capital letters for divine pronouns, I’d love to read your response to the numbered items above. Don’t worry that you’ll hurt my feelings, or that a fight will break out. As I mentioned, I do it both ways, depending on my audience, and I’m truly interested in having a friendly conversation on this.

The Manual of Style that I referred to in this lesson used to be available online, but no longer. I’ve excerpted their discussion of this issue and parked it here. If you’re interested in reading it, you’ll see an expanded discussion of my numbered points. Is there anything there that you’d like to respond to?


Finally, if you haven’t noticed yet, there are three new ‘sticky’ posts at the top of this forum. The top one has these writing lessons grouped into several courses that may be of interest to you. The second one is a course especially chosen for beginning writers. The final list is of all the courses, in alphabetical order so they’ll be easy for you to browse for specific topics.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 26, 2015 9:28 am

Sorry, just me giving this a bump.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby CatLin » Sat Sep 26, 2015 11:54 am

This really makes me uncomfortable. I guess that makes me an "older" Christian. I read the NIV version of the Bible for the most part, and I don't like that He, His, Him, etc. aren't capitalized. There have been a few passages I've had to take to my pastor to discern whether a certain "he" referred to Jesus or some else.

I've also been known to uncapitalize "satan" because I don't want to show him any respect. In fact, I want to disresespect him so I do it on purpose. I'm such a rebel!

However, I try to follow the rules (when necessary) so I'll do my best to comply (when necessary).
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 26, 2015 12:37 pm

CatLin wrote:This really makes me uncomfortable. I guess that makes me an "older" Christian. I read the NIV version of the Bible for the most part, and I don't like that He, His, Him, etc. aren't capitalized. There have been a few passages I've had to take to my pastor to discern whether a certain "he" referred to Jesus or some else.

I've also been known to uncapitalize "satan" because I don't want to show him any respect. In fact, I want to disresespect him so I do it on purpose. I'm such a rebel!

However, I try to follow the rules (when necessary) so I'll do my best to comply (when necessary).


Just to be clear, capitalization has nothing to do with respect. It distinguishes proper nouns from common nouns. It's a matter of writing mechanics in English, nothing more. Think back to when you were taught nouns in elementary school--did any of your teachers teach that capital letters = respect? I suspect not. It's like any other grammar rule: we use question marks to indicate a question, we use capital letters at the beginning of a sentence, we use apostrophe + s to indicate possession...and we capitalize proper nouns, but not pronouns or common nouns.

We do capitalize the pronoun "I", and if capitalization indicated honor or respect, that would seem to go against what we're taught as Christians--we are NOT to think too highly of ourselves. But I don't see Christian writers using a lowercase 'i' when writing about themselves.

That having been said--keep doing it that way when it's appropriate for your audience. But don't judge (I know you wouldn't) those who write them in lowercase.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby Shann » Sat Sep 26, 2015 12:52 pm

I'm on board 100% with you. I often will ask my authors why or why not they want to cap them. Often it turns into capping everything that pertains to God, faith, peace, creator (not as a name but as a common noun).

I don't cap them in my writing, but respect my authors who want to. Interestingly enough, I do cap Heaven and Hell when used as a proper noun. I plan on going to Heaven, but I looked at the heavens. In the Bible, it is not capped in most versions. I find it interesting that I feel strongly about using lowercase for pronouns, but uppercase for Heaven and Hell. I think of them as real places, not just a generic area much like Earth. Earth is the name of a real place. So I would say I live on Earth, but I enjoy digging in the earth.

I think another important thing to consider, along with those you mentioned, is consistency. If you decide to go lowercase, make sure all God pronouns in the MS are lowercase and vice versa.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 26, 2015 1:58 pm

Shann wrote:I don't cap them in my writing, but respect my authors who want to. Interestingly enough, I do cap Heaven and Hell when used as a proper noun. I plan on going to Heaven, but I looked at the heavens. In the Bible, it is not capped in most versions. I find it interesting that I feel strongly about using lowercase for pronouns, but uppercase for Heaven and Hell. I think of them as real places, not just a generic area much like Earth. Earth is the name of a real place. So I would say I live on Earth, but I enjoy digging in the earth.



I don't have a strong opinion one way or another about this. The same Manual of Style that I used for the original post also says that the words heaven and hell can be capitalized or not, so this is a matter of the writer's purpose.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby CatLin » Sat Sep 26, 2015 2:14 pm

glorybee wrote:
Just to be clear, capitalization has nothing to do with respect. It distinguishes proper nouns from common nouns. It's a matter of writing mechanics in English, nothing more.


I don't necessarily think of it as a matter of respect, but more reverence. Awe. Worship maybe? It's recognizing his divinity, that he is so much more than your average "he". (And do you know how hard it was not to capitalize He and Him in that sentence? ;) ).

It's like any other grammar rule: we use question marks to indicate a question, we use capital letters at the beginning of a sentence, we use apostrophe + s to indicate possession...and we capitalize proper nouns, but not pronouns or common nouns.


Grr. This makes so much sense. lol.

We do capitalize the pronoun "I", and if capitalization indicated honor or respect, that would seem to go against what we're taught as Christians--we are NOT to think too highly of ourselves. But I don't see Christian writers using a lowercase 'i' when writing about themselves.


Okay, so why do we capitalize "I"? I've never thought about it before. Hmmmm.

That having been said--keep doing it that way when it's appropriate for your audience. But don't judge (I know you wouldn't) those who write them in lowercase.


Nope. Never. Especially now that I know this rule. I had simply never heard of it before. Thanks so much for keeping us educated on the craft we are learning!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby pheeweed » Sun Sep 27, 2015 7:03 pm

I stated capitalizing God's pronouns when I started writing a lot. For respect. But what you wrote makes perfect sense and even though it will be hard, I intend to stop using caps for pronouns. Unless, of course, the editor wants them.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby glorybee » Sun Sep 27, 2015 7:06 pm

pheeweed wrote:I stated capitalizing God's pronouns when I started writing a lot. For respect. But what you wrote makes perfect sense and even though it will be hard, I intend to stop using caps for pronouns. Unless, of course, the editor wants them.


That's a really good approach to it, Phee.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Sep 28, 2015 1:24 am

Let me start by saying—in memory of Yogi Berra—this feels like de ja vu all over again. I’m pretty sure you and I and others have engaged in this debate on these forums before.

I’m glad you specifically requested responses that disagree with your position. I strongly DISAGREE with your basic premise, although I AGREE with several points you make along the way.

First, points of agreement:

glorybee wrote:If you’re looking to get your writing published, check with the style guides of that publication. Some will insist on lower case, and you’ll want to comply with their wishes. Some will insist on capitalization, and you’ll want to know that, too.


glorybee wrote:A few final notes: If you’re quoting from the Bible, use the capitalization style of the version you’re quoting. If that version has lowercase divine pronouns, you have to use them in your quoted verse(s). The opposite is also true.


glorybee wrote:In view of #1 above, the word Satan should be capitalized. It has nothing to do with respect. It’s just the way English works.


glorybee wrote:Finally, I’ve frequently been surprised to see Bible written in lower case in Writing Challenge entries. It’s always capitalized, as the title of a specific book. Strangely, the adjective biblical is lowercase (I don’t know why). The word Scripture is not so cut-and-dried; I can find sites that say to capitalize it, and others that say the opposite. You can pick.


Now points of disagreement.

But first, an important point about style manuals: While one may be stuck with one’s publisher’s style manual or while one’s privately-hired editor may edit one according to a standard style manual, we need to realize that almost all style manuals are WOEFULLY inadequate when it comes to explaining capitalization. This includes The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, AP, APA (not to be confused with AP), The Chicago Manual of Style, Turabian’s (to the extent it differs from The Chicago Manual of Style), Strunk and White, etc.

Yet (going by memory) each of these style manuals DOES cover your issue, Jan. So what’s the point? The point is that I disagree with you when you say:

glorybee wrote:The function of capitalization is to distinguish specific people or places (Piper, Indiana) from general ones (granddaughter, state).


I would assert that capitalization is to be done by RULE. I believe this to be true because capitalization has MANY functions. I also suggest that when a style manual has an insufficient number of rules, your statement above might appear ALMOST right (but even then it doesn’t account for things (among many) like capitalizing months). However, when a style manual attempts an exhaustive treatment of this topic, your assertion about capitalization’s function seems totally refuted. The problem for me is to provide a style manual that is both readily accessible and fairly exhaustive. The first one I could think of is the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual. It’s Chapter on Capitalization Rules is here. (Note that this only includes one rule on capitalization in abbreviations, since abbreviations get their own chapter with many rules about capitalization.) You can see that this chapter has 57 rules on capitalization. Admittedly, a few deal with when NOT to capitalize, but the vast majority deal with when TO capitalize and most do NOT deal with “specific people or places.”

Most relevant here is its Rule 3.33, “Religious terms.” The fact that this is the current, i.e., modern, style manual of the United States government stands in tension (to say the least) with certain of your claims:

glorybee wrote:Capitalizing divine pronouns dates your writing.


glorybee wrote:Using capitalized divine pronouns will look very strange to younger readers who are not accustomed to seeing the older way of writing, and to non-believers or people who are new to faith. In fact, it may be rather off-putting to them in its oddness.


Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the GPO Style Manual is Gospel (sorry! couldn’t resist). For example, the GPO says NOT to capitalize “who,” “whose,” “whom,” or “himself.” There are probably style manuals (and there are certainly traditions) that require the capitalization of ALL pronouns INCLUDING relative and reflexive pronouns.

My point is, rather, this: There is a RULE that requires the capitalization of “religious terms.” Importantly, other style manuals and grammars give this rule a name: “reverential capitalization.” The name of the rule tells us all we need to know. Thus, I disagree with these statements:

glorybee wrote:Capitalization (or lack thereof) is not used to indicate respect.


glorybee wrote:Just to be clear, capitalization has nothing to do with respect. It distinguishes proper nouns from common nouns. It's a matter of writing mechanics in English, nothing more. Think back to when you were taught nouns in elementary school--did any of your teachers teach that capital letters = respect? I suspect not. It's like any other grammar rule: we use question marks to indicate a question, we use capital letters at the beginning of a sentence, we use apostrophe + s to indicate possession...and we capitalize proper nouns, but not pronouns or common nouns.

We do capitalize the pronoun "I", and if capitalization indicated honor or respect, that would seem to go against what we're taught as Christians--we are NOT to think too highly of ourselves. But I don't see Christian writers using a lowercase 'i' when writing about themselves.


It seems to me that in saying this, you are ignoring MANY “grammar rules,” as per the point above about the many GPO rules, i.e., there are MANY reasons we capitalize or don't capitalize; and "reverential capitalization" is one of the many reasons we do.

Also, this goes to Cat’s point:
CatLin wrote:I don't necessarily think of it as a matter of respect, but more reverence. Awe. Worship maybe? It's recognizing his divinity, that he is so much more than your average "he".

So the real question seems to me to be this: Do we keep the traditional rule (as the United States government still largely does) or do we abandon the rule?

To me, this is an open question. I tend to want to conserve the traditional rules for reasons that I will not expand upon. However, I will say this: You and I agree that unless your students are self-publishing, they are stuck with their publisher’s style manual. If that is the case, this becomes a non-issue: follow the style manual. However, if they are self-publishing, I would disagree with you: reverential capitalization is a still valid rule, and there are many reasons for following it.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby glorybee » Mon Sep 28, 2015 9:55 am

I remember that we've discussed this before, too, but I couldn't find it--it must be part of another thread, but I don't know which one. At any rate, I thought this issue deserved its own lesson.

Thanks for sharing your points! I guess I don't really have much to say; what you've set out seems to me pretty equally balances what I said, and gives writers some valid points to consider when making their choice.

I'd love to hear your thought about the effect of capitalized pronouns on non-believers, young Christians, and young people in general. I guess my thought process goes like this: if I've written a piece about God that a not-yet-Christian comes across, and that person would read it if it grabs her interest but would set it aside if it seemed weird or arcane--and if capitalization that seemed 'off' to her made the difference--I'm going to let the capitalization go.

In my current congregation, we have several families who are very, very new to faith. These are rough folks, still struggling with their pre-Christian behaviors, and who had no prior exposure to church culture or to the Bible. They don't know where to find Habakkuk or Ephesians, and they don't know what the phrase "washed in the blood" means, and they have difficulty understanding almost everything about a Sunday morning church service. It's a strong culture shock--and this may be a tiny, tiny thing, but those capital letters (or the lack of them) just might make their Bibles look just a bit more familiar to them.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Sep 28, 2015 8:27 pm

I think if I were ever persuaded that such concerns were real, I would want to make sure they were not an issue. But I've never seen these things be a problem in any church or in any one-on-one interactions. And that includes the church we helped plant that started with a bunch of unchurched folks. (A core group of 60 believers rented a phone bank and after making tens of thousands of calls, we held our first public service with the 60 plus 150 unchurched folks.) For months, we had scores of folks getting saved and, as I said, this was never an issue.

You mentioned that you capitalize the pronouns in your music slides. Has this been a problem for the folks at your church whom you just mentioned?

Given that this usage still occurs in so many places--including government documents--I doubt it's too foreign to too many folks, whether churched or not.

Plus, I think this probably falls under the old adage "trust your reader": I bet almost anyone could put 2 + 2 together AND not be put off.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby glorybee » Mon Sep 28, 2015 8:52 pm

Those folks don't sing much. I think that's another part of church culture that's still pretty foreign to them.

Anyway...I'm going to let you have the last word on this one, because (as I said before) I think our points have approximately equal value and anyone who reads this far will have read enough to decide which way they want to go. :D
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Sep 28, 2015 10:41 pm

glorybee wrote:Those folks don't sing much. I think that's another part of church culture that's still pretty foreign to them.
:)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CAPITALIZING PRONOUNS FOR GOD

Postby CatLin » Wed Sep 30, 2015 5:51 pm

glorybee wrote:... anyone who reads this far will have read enough to decide which way they want to go. :D


Um. I haven't. :roll: As I read my daily article in the magazine Decision, which is put out by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (I think that's what the EA stand's for in BGEA), I realized toward the end that the pronouns for God were capitalized. However, I'm sure I would have noticed right off if they weren't. I know I will continue to capitalize them in my church newsletter and in devotions I write. But as for fiction, I'm still undecided. (even if the audience may be unchurched or non-believers.)
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