Question on capitalization

Kristor writes:

I could use your guidance on something. When is it appropriate to capitalize Left and Liberal, or Right and Conservative, and when not? I keep going back and forth, with no clear notion what I’m doing, and no visceral instinct for which is correct. I bet a lot of VFR types—mostly OCD with respect to language, I’m sure (unless that impression is prompted by your editorial interventions in their comments)—would be interested in your thoughts on this subject.

LA replies:

At VFR I never capitalize “liberal” and “conservative.” I also do not capitalize “the left” and “leftist.” Liberalism, conservatism, and the left are general tendencies, not proper nouns, as, say, Communism is. It is ironic that while the whole world for some reason has incorrectly been spelling “communism” lower case, they all capitalize “the Left.”

Another reason for not capitalizing “the Left” is that if we do so, we also need to capitalize “the Right.” So Commentary Magazine, the Weekly Standard, Jonah Goldberg, and “Rich” Lowry become “the Right,” making the present unreal, liberal conservatism seem even more real and solid. In fact, Commentary has been self-importantly referring to itself as “the Right” for many years.

A suite of macros I developed for preparing comments for posting changes “the Left” to “the left.” However, I’m not entirely consistent on that, and sometimes I let a reader have his preference.

On a related issue, I am somewhat inconsistent on whether titles, particularly referring to the president of the United States, as in “the “president spoke today,” should be capitalized. Generally I follow contemporary usage and make “the president,” “the senator,” etc. lower case. But many VFR readers capitalize “the President” and “the Senator,” in keeping with older common usage, and sometimes I follow that. I find this a vexed issue, with no approach completely satisfactory. But I need to decide on a consistent style.

- end of initial entry -

Kristor replies:

Your approach on left versus Left makes great sense. I’ll do that from now on. I’ve never been tempted to capitalize right.

Re President versus president, perhaps it may help you to learn of a convention I have promoted for the sake of clarity in my firm’s written communications. When we refer of a particular mutual fund or portfolio, we capitalize “Fund” and “Portfolio.” But when we speak of a fund or portfolio in generic terms, we don’t. Thus:

  • The XYZ Fund, unlike any other fund currently available, invests in both real estate and diapers. The Fund’s manager has a unique perspective on the markets, that puzzles other fund managers.

  • Joe, your Portfolio is unique among our client portfolios, in that it invests entirely in orange juice futures contracts.

  • President Obama, unlike all the presidents who came before him, was raised a Muslim. The President insists that his early Muslim inculcation has no effect on his decisions, whatsoever. Many other presidents, by contrast -President GW Bush comes to mind -have emphasized the strong influence of their Christian faith on their policy choices.

For what it’s worth.

Hannon writes:

Following on your discussion with Kristor, there is a similar inconsistency in the way common names of animals and plants are capitalized. Formal names for generic-sounding designations, like “brown bear” or “meadow lark,” are not capitalized, while a proper noun within a name is capitalized in common cases like Grevy’s zebra or Kodiac bear. This has always struck me as odd and inconsistent, and I would compare these cases with geographic titles like Appalachian Mountains, Pacific Ocean, etc.

One good reason to capitalize all the words in a widely recognized, formal name designation is to avoid contextual problems like referring to a brown bear—a bear that happens to be brown—versus the distinct species we know as the brown bear. No one seems to accept this line of reasoning these days. Capitalization in the names of plants and animals, even the scientific names, has been falling out of fashion for decades. I believe this is in accord with the modern trend to impose efficiency and sterile abstractness onto everything, a sort of equality in the order of artificial systems.

LA replies:

I’m not sure I agree. Dog is the name of a species. Should we write, “It’s a beautiful Dog”? Oak is the name of a genus. Should we write, “There is an Oak growing in our front yard”?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 10, 2012 01:45 PM | Send

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