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PostPosted: Sat Oct 23, 2010 9:37 pm
Post subject: Prompt for Discussion of the Capitalization of Pronouns
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Understandings Toward a Discussion of the Capitalization of Pronouns in the American English Language
or the Name's the Thing

The English language is among those languages that have undergone considerable refining. Early on, much of the refining was done sporadically, and sometimes seemingly by chance. During the Renaissance there was a notable effort to refine English. This included spelling changes.The interest that prompted the changes also resulted in the first spelling guides for the English language and marked a more definite solidity in the language.

Fundamental changes such as the shape of letters have occurred throughout history, but are now unlikely. Other changes such as the introduction of new words and changes in spelling continue to occur. It is important to note that changes in capitalization are considered more like changes in spelling, within formal linguistics, than changes in the shapes of letters. Another change that is common is the change in pronunciation without changes in spelling. Today, even these changes are more rare within the established English language, though they may come and go in common communication. When changes are made in the established language they are typically held to rules to maintain consistent order. Despite the presence of authorities on language, an “idea of regularity” (Venezky 126) remains a central guide in the shaping of new words. This idea is often at the core of the changes that occur and the focus of the rules that are established.

Capitalization is one of the facets of language that is more varied from language to language, and the rules defining capitalization are more liberal than other rules in American English. It is not uncommon to find some words capitalized by some individuals and groups and not by others. In other languages, such as German, all nouns are capitalized. (Stengl 10) In English capitalization of nouns was common until around 1800. Evidence of this can be seen in the original articles of the United States Constitution.

Today, capitalization is used more conservatively. Among the primary instances of capitalization are the beginning of a sentence and in the case of proper nouns. In addition, there are instances when a noun refers to something more than in typical use. An example of this is “freedom” and “Freedom”. “Freedom” may not technically be considered a proper noun, but it can be considered something more than only “the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint” ("Freedom."). Adjectives that are created from a proper noun, such as “Aristotelian”, are typically capitalized, though there are some exceptions. ("Capitalization.",; "Capitalization."

The major distinction between proper nouns and common nouns is that pronouns refer to a particular, while common nouns do not necessarily. Particular in this instance refers to a singular, but moreover it refers to a singular that is the only one in creation, in idea, such as the Eiffel Tower. In the American English language at present, grammar rules call for the capitalization of proper nouns. People may assume that we capitalize proper nouns because they are unique. This is a factuality that has become innate in the practice of this grammar rule. ("Proper Noun.",; "Proper Noun."

It is a significant point that proper nouns are removed from the limitation of necessary meaning as well. For example, I cannot by definition call a “chair” an “airplane”, but I can name anyone “Edward” and be correct in accordance with the practice of using a proper noun. The words used as proper nouns are not necessarily based on any meaning, but instead on their chosen reference to, or association with, a particular. In this way proper nouns function more like basic symbols than words whose definitions match the thing referenced. In some cases, a name may be chosen because of an accepted meaning, but by definition that is not what classifies that name as a proper noun, which merits the use of capitalization. Neither does the use of a noun whose definition fits the referenced object qualify that noun to be considered a proper noun and merit capitalization.

While some pronouns are more difficult to define when considered from a linguistic viewpoint, grammar rules within the English language explain that pronouns are used as “replacements or substitutes for nouns and noun phrases” ("Pronoun.") . The term noun phrase can refer to even a single noun, so it is no less correct to state that pronouns are used in the place of noun phrases. Pronouns are considered to be generic in the sense that the same pronoun can be used to refer to a “door” as to refer to a “cat.” The use of a single proper noun phrase such as “John” to refer to many particulars that share the same name while still maintaining the status of proper noun phrase and capitalization seems to imply the generic usage of pronouns does not necessarily exclude them from the distinction of capitalization.

Pronouns are used to refer to the same things that proper noun phrases refer to as well. For example, in American English, the class of pronouns called personal pronouns are used to refer to people, whose names are proper noun phrases. Pronouns in this usage are versatile symbols that stand in the place of these proper noun phrases that refer to persons. Similar to proper noun phrases, pronouns are used to serve as a symbol for the particular that is referenced using a proper noun phrase at other times. In these uses the reference of a particular is part of the definition and implied by the usage of the pronoun.

In the case of personal pronouns, the pronoun is typically used similarly to how a proper noun phrase would be used in that instance. One notable exception is the pronoun “I”, which may be among the most convincing prompts for discussion on the inception of some recognized form of proper pronoun or rule for capitalizing some pronouns.

There are examples of other languages that maintain capitalization for personal pronouns. Among the most common examples of this is the capitalization of second person pronouns. These are pronouns that refer to the individual(s) that the speaker is speaking to. Among the languages that adhere to this practice in some form are Czech, Danish, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish, Russian, Slovak and Spanish.

As the reader has likely noted, there are a good many similarities between pronouns and the proper noun phrases that they sometimes function in place of in American English. The similarities include a commonality of what they reference, but extend to the more subtle levels of a referencing that is not based on the matching of definition with subject, as in the case of common noun phrases. There is also a marked coincidence of grammatical placement among many personal pronouns and the noun phrases that they are used in place of. These similarities alone are not likely to be sufficient cause for the defining of new grammatical rules regarding the capitalization of pronouns, as there are similarities between many elements of language. What seems to be revealed in this research is that there is sufficient grammatical/linguistic allowance to begin capitalizing additional pronouns in American English. There also seems to be adequate merit for a scholarly discourse on the development of grammatical rules regarding such capitalization. The result of the discourse may likely take the form of a reply to the title of this piece, because sometimes it is in the differences, not similarities, that the fine lines are drawn.

Edward Wells II

Works Cited:

“Capitalization.”, n.d. Web. 15 Sep. 2010.

“Capitalization.” n.p., n.d. Web. 15 Sep. 2010.

"Freedom." Unabridged. Random House, Inc., n.d. Web. 07 Sep. 2010.

“Pronoun.” n.p., n.d. Web. 07 Sep. 2010.

"Proper Noun." Unabridged. Random House, Inc., n.d. Web. 07 Sep. 2010.

“Proper Noun.” n.p., n.d. Web. 07 Sep. 2010.

Stengel, M. (2008). Strings of Natural Languages: Unsupervised Analysis and Segmentation on the Expression Level. Hamburg: Diplomica Verlag

Venezky, Richard L. The American Way of Spelling: the structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford Press, 1999. Print

Further Reading:

Abbott, Barbara. “DEFINITE AND INDEFINITE.” Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition. Elsevier Ltd. 2008. Web.

Halleck, Elaine (editor). “Sum: Pronoun "I" again.” LINGUIST List 9.253., n.p., Web. 20 Feb. 1998.

Mulhausler, Peter, and Rom Harre. Pronouns and People: The Linguistic Construction of Social and Personal Identity (Applied Language Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1990. Print

Tse, Grace Yuen Wah. "Proper Nouns." Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Volume 2. Taylor and Francis. 2009. Web.

Thanks to:

Kerri Mitchell, Therese Clemens and the Front Range Community College Writing Center

Gerry Delahunty PhD, Associate Professor of Linguistics and English, Assistant Chair, English Department, PCMI Liaison, Colorado State University and the Morgan Library at Colorado State University

Last edited by ecw2nd on Fri Feb 17, 2012 5:25 pm; edited 2 times in total
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