Friday, February 02, 2007

Capitalization, Grammatical Fine Points, and Trusting Readers

In writing fiction, I have several times had to think about the question of how much I can trust my readers.

In Harald, for example, "commander" was the title used in the Imperial army for an officer commanding a legion, an army, or a fortification; like "captain" or "commodore" in the British Navy two hundred years ago, it was something between a rank and a job description. But "the Commander" was also how one particular officer, widely regarded as the best, was routinely referred to, whether or not the speaker happened to be in an army that that officer was currently commanding. A modern equivalent would be "general" used as a rank, and "the General" used to refer to one particularly prominent general.

Strictly speaking, as I understand the conventional rules of capitalization, "commander" should be capitalized when it is the nickname of a particular officer but not in the more general context. Both I and my editor were concerned that readers who did not pick up on that distinction would assume we had simply been careless and inconsistent about when to capitalize. We ended up going with "commander," uncapitalized, in both cases.

I have encountered the same problem in Salamander, the (very different) fantasy novel I am currently working on. A central plot element is a sort of magical chain reaction that lets one mage get control over the magical power of a large number of others; I (and the mage who invented it) refer to it as "the Cascade." Since it is a proper name it ought to be capitalized. But the same word appears repeatedly in closely related contexts, describing the effect that the spell produces: "As the cascade started" would mean, not "as the spell was cast," but "as the chain reaction began to happen," and one can imagine a number of other such uses. I am again in two minds as to whether to capitalize selectively, which I think is grammatically correct, or uniformly, one way or the other.

In part this is a question of how much I trust my readers to understand what I am doing. But it also involves a different question: How much am I responsible for nudging my readers towards, rather than away from, correct grammatical usage.



Anonymous said...

I'm for using capitalization where appropriate. Not only is it more correct, but I think your concerns about readers thinking you're being inconsistent are not as well-founded as you might suspect.

For instance, many readers may regard your "consistent" approach as incorrect. You've thus shifted the problem from people erroneously thinking you're wrong to people correctly thinking you're wrong.

Probably more importantly, the lack of distinction in capitalization between the similar terms can lead to confusion on the part of the reader. The capitalized term gives the reader a clear, obvious cue that you're talking about The Cascade, rather than simply a given "cascade". By eliminating the distinction, you may actually be causing readers to have to go back to a sentence to read it a second or third time, to solve some confusion.

Just one man's thoughts on the matter.

Glen Whitman said...

I agree with Apotheon. Also, I think a lot of people pick up on these distinctions subconsciously; they just realize that "commander" and "Commander" have slightly different meanings, even if they can't quite articulate the rule. Anyone who thinks about it long enough to consciously notice the possible inconsistency will, if they think just a little longer, realize that it actually is not one.

dWj said...

I'd like to add that I don't see what the danger was in capitalizing the proper noun; at the very worst it seems to me people would, as Apotheon says, erroneously think you're wrong. I can't imagine it would seriously confuse anyone.

In the new situation, the lower-case cascade might, at least some of the time, accommodate a synonym. It might even read better that way.

Zachary Skaggs said...

Why not just re-title the spell to something other than "Cascade" to eliminate the confusion?

Unknown said...

I don't think the distinction is that difficult to keep straight (so you should capitalize selectively). I'd have a little more faith in the intelligence of the reader, unless you have reason to believe otherwise.

Jacob Rideout said...

Rules for grammar and orthography are only needed to ensure communication is possible; they are of limited utility outside of this application. Any change, insomuch as it improves the comprehension of your readers, is worthwhile.

That said, you likely are underestimating the intelligence of your readership. They are probably, by and large, quite intelligent and literate; there is a great probability they can follow your subtle distinctions.

Mike Hammock said...

Although I generally did not like the stylized speech and narration of Harald, I did not have any trouble recognizing that the Commander was a specific person, whereas a commander was not. I do not think you readers will have trouble distinguishing the Cascade from a cascade, particularly if you occasionally use substitutes for the lower-case version.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Set the stories in the 18th Century, and capitalize every third noun, proper or not.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize. I've struggled with similar things at work, writing stuff that tells my clients' employees what they can do with their 401(k) savings plans. It turns out that "rollover" is a noun, but "roll over" is the verb form, so I end up writing things such as "if you leave the company, you can roll over your 401(k) balance to an IRA or another qualified plan that accepts rollovers," -- and then my client or somebody in the review process is likely to point out and question the "inconsistency."

But even if I felt I could make my own rules here, I wouldn't shorten the verb form to one word ("rollover"), because then I couldn't say "if you roll your balance over into an IRA," and I wouldn't make the noun form two words because "if the other plan accepts roll overs" looks dumb.

Anyway ... I say capitalize the proper name version of "Cascade," as Apotheon says.

If you really want to avoid confusion, you can further distinguish the special Cascade from other cascades by sticking on a modifier and calling it the Great Cascade, or something like that.