Particularly Important Words

I recently came across the phrase “Arrival Ball”. It was capitalized just like that.

This example of Particularly Important capitalization seemed odd to me at first, since China Mieville has an excellent command of English. He even uses opaquely archaic words to excellent descriptive effect, and this book is no exception; this takes considerable skill. Thinking about it, I realized that I’ve seen several good uses of the technique over the years. Perhaps Mr. Mieville knows what he’s doing? –I thought, before reading on.

(I was also on my way to a meet-and-greet with other freelance editors, and was in a particularly wordy mood, even for me.)

If you’ve read ever read prose that’s not professionally-edited, you’ve noticed a tendency for many writers to capitalize the words they feel are particularly important, often for no good reason. Taken to extremes, it’s Jarring to the reader. Since I consider myself very much a descriptivist, I’m taking a break from simply mocking this usage, instead trying to understand it. I think I’ve succeeded in the latter, to a degree.

I wrote the first draft of this article in a voice of particular importance, but I abandoned that quickly. I needed to stop and think more often–and at unaccustomed times. I needed to decide where to place those capital letters. On one level, this can be a good thing–writing on autopilot can result in ill-thought-out, sloppy prose.

Making those decisions suggested a new way of thinking about emphasis. For example: In the previous paragraph, I decided to Stress the word “Sloppy” and not “prose”. While I could have Stressed both–maybe comic-book style–I made a decision about which word was the more important, and on a phrasal level. Now, having stripped most of the article of its particular importance, the text reads much more evenly and–unsurprisingly–it’s just plain easier to read. And it’s easier for me to concentrate on making decisions about sentences and paragraphs, rather than individual phrases.

Particularly important words are often the hallmark of the amateur, and when you think about it, it’s not all that different from the use of italicized text for emphasis. Just as overuse of capitalized words is a throwback to the days before capitalization rules were agreed-upon, overuse of italics is distracting and, in the hands of a sloppy writer, emphasizes too much; the reader is never certain what words are specifically meant to be important.

In English, the word “I” is always capitalized. This is as much a convention of typography as of grammar. While a lone, lowercase “i” looks unimportant, capitalizing every iteration of the personal pronoun has the effect of making English something of a self-centered language. In other words, I am important, “he” and “she” are less so.

But this sort of indecisiveness about details is also brought out when obsessing about individual phrases. And perhaps that’s why we’ve agreed on a standard, however arbitrary: It allows us as writers and editors and proofreaders to stick to a (fairly) consistent standard and get on with what we actually want to say.

Did my moments of indecision, when trying to determine what words to capitalize, channel the feel of writing in a time of quill pens and leeches? Since my hands aren’t ink-stained, I think it probably didn’t.

This fit of obsession with capitalization is likely due to a combination of that pending meeting–and Mr. Mieville’s choice of particularly important capitalization.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor. On the side, he’s the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides a mean bicycle, and he paints with oils when the mood strikes him.


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