Thursday, December 16, 2010

Decline & Fall Of Writing

In English, we have certain standards of proper writing.  One of them is that when you are referring to the Judeo-Christian deity, or if you choose to refer to Islam's deity other than by the name Allah, the three letter word we use is capitalized: God.  The only time that it is considered proper English is when you are referring to pagan gods (plural), or referring to a single pagan deity as an improper noun.  Example: "The Norse worshiped many gods, but among this little group of Viking explorers, Thor was the god most important to their adventures."

No surprise on this.  The rule of capitalization in English is that you capitalize proper nouns: a reference to a particular or specific instance.  It's a dog--unless some precious child with a lack of imagination named it Dog.  (Or you are a bounty hunter.)  We capitalize John because that is the name of one particular person.  While strictly speaking, "god" is not a proper noun, in English, because of two thousand years of Christianity, during much of which time many ordinary Christians were unclear on the difference between His job title and name, the Judeo-Christian deity is normally styled God.  Perhaps, if we were starting from scratch, and making English completely consistent and logical we would not do this--but English is not particularly consistent or logical.  We live with the rules and the many exceptions.

Many years ago, the science writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov published a book called In The Beginning: Science Faces God in the Book of Genesis, an ostensibly fair minded discussion of religion and science that tried very hard to show that he wasn't hostile to religion--just arguing for a more enlightened understanding of the Old Testament.  And yes, it conformed to the rules of English: the Judeo-Christian deity was consistently capitalized as God.  

Yet at the same time the book came out, The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine to which I used to subscribe, carried an article by Asimov that consistently and regularly referred to the Judeo-Christian deity as lower-case "god."  This was about 1980.  To make such a consistent, non-standard use was clearly intended by Asimov as a statement--and one completely contrary to the "I don't have an ax to grind" claims that Asimov made in the introduction to In The Beginning.  It annoyed me, because it was not very honest to pretend one thing in a mass market book, and say rather the opposite in a narrowly aimed magazine.

Now, I expect students to not know all the rules of English on this, and eight zillion areas.  Part of my job in grading papers is to let them know about: run-on sentences; singular/plural mismatches; unclear antecedents; proper use of apostrophes for possessives.  And yes, God vs. god.

So imagine my frustration to read an article from the December 16, 2010 New Hampshire Journal that was annoying in its own right, and see this:
Democratic spokeswoman Harrell Kirstien accused Republican State Rep. David Bates of attempting to impose a “Bible belt social agenda” after video surfaced of Bates saying “the only hope for America” is to “turn from our wicked ways and ask god to heal our land” and “the problem we have here in this country and in all of our states is that we no longer fear god” at New England Solemn Assembly in Plymouth Massachusetts.
Bates' speech appeared on video--so he was not responsible for the capitalization error.  Was "Democratic spokeswoman Harrell Kirstien" responsible for this?  Or was it the writer of the article that does not know the rules of English.

Idiocracy is arriving--and faster than in the movie.


  1. This is evidently an idea that is making its way into someone's style manual. A little over a year ago my wife was editing her book, a testimony of God's provision and healing during her bought with brain cancer, and her editor sent the manuscript back with all pronouns with the antecedent God in lower case letters. This struck us as highly unconventional and even odd considering that the bulk of the books they publish are Christian in nature.

  2. My inclination would be to blame the editor at the Skeptical Inquirer, rather than Asimov.

    And to blame the editor at the New Hampshire Journal, whether or not the press-release is right.

    As it happens the original press release gets the capitalization right, or else was edited to do so:

  3. I'd dearly love to blame the Demowoman Spokescritic for this, but here's the press release, apparently original, and God is capitalized.

    However, Harrell is also quoted:

    "Why does House Republican leadership appear so intent on forcing their Bible Belt social agenda upon the people of New Hampshire?" asked Harrell Kirstein, press secretary for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "Radical social conservative have filed countless legislative requests for bills that infringe on equality and individual rights."

    So that would get a couple red marks from my grade school teacher.