Random Acts of Capitalization

Did you know that the phrase “less is more” may have originated from an 1855 poem by Robert Browning? In the 1960s, “less is more” was adopted as an axiom of minimalist architecture. It has since served as a guiding principle in various contexts, including interior design, advertising, and corporate communications. The “less is more” philosophy also applies to an oft-misused element of written English, capitalization.

lowercaseCopyeditors haven’t always tracked changes in word processing documents. As recently as the 1990s, we marked up hard copies of manuscripts with red pencils (by the dim glow of kerosene lamps). The protocol for indicating an improperly capitalized word was to strike through it with a forward slash. For me, this dramatic gesture was often accompanied by the thought, “Why? Nooo!” So, why do people seem to think that capitalizing with abandon is such a capital idea?

We are taught in school that certain words are meant to be capitalized, such as the first word in a sentence or quotation, the pronoun “I,” proper nouns, days of the week, months of the year, and holidays. I believe that writers, both casual and serious, are worried that they will fail to capitalize when they should. So they overcompensate, introducing capitalization where it isn’t appropriate.

Following are some of the more common capitalization mistakes I encounter in my editing, with the corresponding rules from The Chicago Manual of Style. In the examples, the incorrectly capitalized letters are bold.

Error: Capitalizing important words.

  • Example: “The book is about Jazz Musicians.”

Rule: Initial capitals, once used to lend importance to certain words, are now used only ironically.

An example of the ironic use of initial caps might be, “Last night, she and her boyfriend had The Talk.” Interestingly, Shakespeare is said to have capitalized words in the original text of his plays that he wanted his actors to emphasize. Another tidbit: in German, all nouns are capitalized.

Error: Capitalizing titles and offices when they appear after or replace a personal name.

  • Example: “George Washington was the first President of the United States.”
  • Example: “Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, played a major role in the naval history of World War II.”
  • Example: “I spoke to the Rabbi.”
  • Example: “She served as the Chief Financial Officer of Vandelay Industries.”

Rule: Civil, military, religious, and professional titles are normally lowercased when following a name or used in place of a name.

Titles appearing before a personal name are capitalized, such as “President Lincoln.” There is an exception, however, for titles used “in apposition”—such as “American president Abraham Lincoln.”

Error: Capitalizing words like army and navy when used on their own.

  • Example: “Elvis joined the Army in March 1958.”

Rule: Words such as army and navy are lowercased when standing alone, when used collectively in the plural, or when not part of an official title.

So, “the army,” “the armies,” and “the United States Army” would be correct.

Error: Capitalizing academic subjects.

  • Example: “He is majoring in Comparative Literature.”

Rule: Academic subjects are not capitalized unless they form part of a department name or an official course name or are themselves proper nouns.

So, “Gender Studies Department,” “Cake Decorating 101,” and “Spanish” would be correct.

Error: Capitalizing seasons.

  • Example: “Santa Barbara holds an annual parade celebrating the Summer solstice.”

Rule: The four seasons are lowercased.

The four seasons are capitalized, however, when used to denote an issue of a journal, such as “Journal of Cupcake Science 2 (Summer 2014).”

So remember, when it comes to capitalization, less is often more. Your overworked Shift key will thank you.

That’s an Understatement

Queen Victoria

The British daily newspaper The Guardian has called it “the most common rhetorical device you’ve never heard of.” I propose that even if you’ve heard of it, you have no idea how to pronounce it (unless you’re a 13-year-old in the National Spelling Bee). Litotes is a form of understatement. Despite the “s” at the end, “litotes” is singular; that is, you wouldn’t call an instance of it “a litote.” Another surprise is that the word litotes has three syllables, as you can hear here.

Litotes is usually discussed in the context of hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration). Hyperbole and litotes are presented as opposites, or at least as contrary companions. Perhaps it is not shocking that every single person in the world recognizes blustery hyperbole, whereas quiet litotes goes largely unnoticed. (In the previous sentence, “every single person in the world” is hyperbole; “not shocking” is litotes.)

Greek for “plain” or “simple,” litotes has a dizzying definition: “the assertion of an affirmative by negating its contrary” (M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms). To understand litotes, consider these simple steps for creating it:

  1. Identify your point. Example: “This restaurant is expensive.”
  2. Form the opposite. Example: “This restaurant is cheap.”
  3. Make it negative. Example: “This restaurant is not cheap.”

“This restaurant is not cheap” is an understated way of saying “This restaurant is expensive.”

Here are additional examples of litotes and their meanings:

Example Meaning
The drive wasn’t bad. The drive was good.
I don’t disagree with you. I agree with you.
She is not unlike her sister. She is like her sister.
He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He’s dumb.
A thousand dollars is no small amount. A thousand dollars is a lot.
You won’t want to leave. You’ll want to stay.
Are you also aware that Ferris does not have what we consider an exemplary attendance record? Ferris has a poor attendance record.

Note that the “meanings” are much bolder than their understatements. They declare what is rather than contradict what is not.

Litotes can serve multiple purposes. If you’re a Texas hold ’em pro but want to downplay your skills out of modesty, you might say, “I am not an inexperienced poker player.” If you are trying to console a friend who totally screwed up, you might say, out of empathy, “You were not completely successful.” If you are a political candidate who wants to call your adversary a liar without causing an uproar, you might say, passive aggressively, “My opponent is not innocent of misstating the facts.” Other functions of litotes include euphemism, irony, and comedy.

But my favorite is probably poetry: “The course of true love never did run smooth” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Who Was Lady Mondegreen?

Lady Mondegreen

Have you ever been shocked to discover that the words of a song you’ve heard countless times were not the actual lyrics—or even close? Would you also be shocked to know there is a term for this kind of error? A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting something auditory, such as a song. The listener substitutes words that sound similar to the misheard content and that seem sufficiently plausible in context.

A famous mondegreen is “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” a line from Jimi Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze”). Another oft-cited musical mondegreen is “There’s a bathroom on the right” (rather than “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” Creedence Clearwater Revival). Examples of mondegreens in everyday language include “for all intensive purposes” (“for all intents and purposes”), “deep-seeded” (“deep-seated”), and “one in the same” (“one and the same”). I am always surprised to find that someone thinks the name of the HBO series about Carrie Bradshaw and her friends is Sex in the City (not Sex and the City).

The word mondegreen is itself a mondegreen. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954. When Wright was a child, her mother would read to her from an eighteenth-century collection of ballads and popular songs. One of Wright’s favorite poems, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray,” began as follows:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

Wright envisaged Lady Mondegreen as a woman with dark curls and a green dress, her throat pierced by an arrow; she lay at the earl’s side, holding his hand. However, the real fourth line of the verse was not “And Lady Mondegreen” but “And laid him on the green.” In other words, there was no Lady Mondegreen! Wright memorialized her tragic yet nonexistent heroine in the name of the phenomenon she exemplified.

I believe I have proof that a musician succumbed to a mondegreen—in his own song! Duran Duran released the album Seven and the Ragged Tiger in November 1983. Here is the chorus of the second track, “New Moon on Monday” (scanned from the inner sleeve):

New Moon chorus
The first few times I heard the song, I mistook “firedance through the night” for “five days through the night”—words that romantically evoked a night so long and full of adventure that it was equivalent to five days. (This line has stumped others, as well.) I caught my mistake, however, while studying the actual lyrics. When the video for “New Moon on Monday” premiered, I was astonished to see that John Taylor, the group’s bassist, seemed to have the same misunderstanding! Near the end of the video, while enthusiastically lip-syncing “And a firedance through the night,” he twice held up his hand as if indicating the number five—as in “five days through the night”!

five days

“Five days through the night”?

It seems inconceivable that a guitarist would hear his own song incorrectly, so perhaps I misperceived the gesture and substituted my own interpretation—you know, a new moon.

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

Cartoon captionI have become obsessed with the New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest. Since the magazine’s first issue, in 1925, it has been known for its cartoons. They have even attained pop-culture status. You may recall a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine demands to know why a particular New Yorker cartoon is funny. The magazine’s editor responds, “Cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn’t dissect gossamer.” In other words, “I don’t get it either.” The caption contest has existed since 2005. On the HBO series Bored to Death, Ted Danson’s character, George, studies the contest cartoon, on the last page of the magazine. He muses, “What would a police duck say to a suicidal bear? . . . ‘You can bear it.’ Oh God, that’s terrible. I’m never gonna win this thing.” Actually, some of the reader-generated captions are very good. Of the ones I have seen, my favorite accompanies the illustration of a woman and a clown at a sidewalk café table. The clown is seated, looking sad. The woman is standing, her wine untouched. She says, “Well, if you must know, he makes me laugh.” You can see it here.

I have to imagine that the contest presents one of the best ways for the average person to get published in the New Yorker. Still, the odds are against you: the magazine receives five to ten thousand entries per contest. (You’d probably have better luck with a letter to the editor.) And being a celebrity doesn’t help: High-profile losers include comedian Zach Galifianakis, political satirist Stephen Colbert, country singer Brad Paisley, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and three-term mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg. In 2011, film critic Roger Ebert became a finalist and won, on his 107th try.

How does the contest work? The magazine publishes a cartoon in need of a caption. Readers submit their captions online. The magazine chooses three finalists, on which the public votes. The winning caption appears in the magazine, and the winner receives a print of the captioned cartoon, signed by the artist who drew it—a.k.a. my new goal in life. Is there a magic formula for getting a caption past the judges? Humor would seem to be the most important component. Contest winner Patrick House, a Stanford University neuroscientist, offers some insight:

To understand what makes the perfect caption, you must start with the readership. Paging through the New Yorker is a lonesome withdrawal, not a group activity. The reader is isolated and introspective, probably on the train commuting to work. He suffers from urban ennui. He does not make eye contact. Laughing out loud is, in this context, an unseemly act sure to draw unwanted attention. To avoid this, your caption should elicit, at best, a mild chuckle. The first filter for your caption should be: Is it too funny? Will it make anyone laugh out loud? If so, throw it out and work on a less funny one.

Chicago attorney Larry Wood, who has won multiple times, gives the opposite advice: “I think you should try to be as funny as you can.” The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, concurs; to increase your chances of winning, he recommends, “Be funnier.” I have collected the following additional tips from Mankoff, past champions, and researchers who have studied the contest:

  1. Be persistent. Enter every week.
  2. Be brief.
  3. Minimize punctuation, especially exclamation points.
  4. Be novel and surprising. (A thousand people might send in the same caption, if it’s an obvious fit for the drawing.)
  5. Be abstract, such that the picture can’t be retrofitted to the caption.
  6. Use simple language.
  7. Avoid proper nouns.
  8. Cover everything that’s happening in the image, but don’t restate what’s in it.
  9. Avoid puns and labored wordplay.
  10. Keep it clean.

I have entered six times. So, who’s with me? Remember, if you don’t enter, you can’t be bitter when someone else’s subpar caption wins.

The Big Picture on Small Talk


In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at UCLA, I took a screenwriting class. I was too immature for the course but also too immature to recognize that. The instructor was Richard Walter, screenwriting faculty chairman and “the screenwriter’s guru.” The text was Aristotle’s Poetics, literally a classic, which emphasizes the unity of time, place, and action in successful drama. Had the course occurred the following year, the required reading would likely have been Walter’s own newly published manual, Screenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing. I remember this book, which I purchased voluntarily, as helpful and humorous, with vivid illustrations—some of which I still recall over two dozen years later.

In a section about chitchat, Walter advises that scripts not include the kind of “prattle” that pervades our daily interactions: “Hi, how are you?—Fine, thanks. Yourself?—Not bad, thanks.—The family?—Just great, though the baby has a rash. You?” Also called “small talk,” this cordial conversation about trivial matters is used especially in social situations, such as at parties, around the office, in line at the grocery store, waiting for a bus, etc. In a movie or television show, such “trifling talk” neither advances the plot nor enhances character. Walter cites a screenplay, written by a student, that contained 20 pages’ worth of such pleasantries. The writer ultimately decided to substitute more exciting language. Compare:


TOM: Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE: Hi, Tom.


TOM: Sexy dress!

DEBBIE: Like it?

TOM: Love it!

naked dressRereading this example the other day made me think of a scene from an early episode of Sex and the City, in which Carrie wears a short, slinky, nude-toned dress (which Charlotte dubs “the naked dress”) on her first official date with Big. As she approaches his car, he addresses her:

BIG: Interesting dress.

CARRIE: Meaning?

BIG: Interesting dress.

The exchange hints at the characters’ powerful physical attraction, to which they succumb moments later (and again, on and off, throughout the show’s run). A more small talk-y, less effective greeting might have been as follows:

BIG: Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE: Hi . . . well, we call you Mr. Big.

As an introvert, I question whether small talk is best avoided in real life, as well. (I have never been shy about my introversion.) Articles on the qualities of the introverted temperament consistently mention a dislike for small talk. But why do introverts shun chitchat? Here are some possible explanations, which I can personally validate:

  1. Introverts enjoy deep conversations, about ideas and theories.
  2. Introverts like to think before they speak.
  3. Introverts don’t talk unless they have something to say.
  4. Introverts are active listeners.
  5. Introverts are exhausted by small talk, because interaction drains their energy.

While engaging in light dialogue can be stressful and tiring for those of us who are introverted, this type of communication is inescapable. Therefore, fellow introverts, I encourage you to keep the benefits of small talk in mind the next time you find yourself on an airplane next to a stranger, at a networking event, or in the barber’s chair:

  1. Small talk provides an opportunity to connect.
  2. Small talk conveys interest, people like when you take an interest in them, and so they will like you.
  3. Small talk can lead to big things, such as relationships and business deals.
  4. Small talk puts you in the present moment.
  5. Small talk improves your problem-solving abilities.

In other words, small talk might advance the plot and enhance character after all.

Highly Quotable Films

Monty Pythin

Several weeks ago, my husband and I had an at-home date night. Dinner was gluten-free pesto pizza, and the movie was Night Shift, a 1982 comedy directed by Ron Howard and starring Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton as city morgue attendants who decide to become pimps. I was thrilled to see that the film was available on cable, because I had been regularly quoting from a particular scene and wanted to show my hubby the original (which I couldn’t find on YouTube). I first saw Night Shift in the theater when I was 14, because my mother, sister, and I were tired from shopping at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. (Shopping continues to exhaust me.) Though I saw the film again numerous times in my youth, I was amazed at how many of the lines I still remembered. I was also surprised at my restraint: I said only about half of them out loud.

Princess BrideTo me, Night Shift represents an HQF (highly quotable film). It offers not just the occasional piece of marvelous dialogue but a continuous succession of amusing utterances. I conducted an informal survey of online lists Airplaneof “most quotable movies.” The film cited most often was . . . Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Interject your favorite line here; try to stop at one.) The following movies were also regularly identified: The Princess Bride, The Godfather, The AnchormanBig Lebowski, Napoleon Dynamite, and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Other popular quotable films included The Wizard of Oz, Airplane!, Pulp Fiction, Mean Girls, Ghostbusters, Forrest Gump, Casablanca, Star Wars, Office Space, Caddyshack, and Young Frankenstein.

I was at a dinner party on New Year’s Eve, and one of the guests suggested playing the game of identifying movies by their quotes. I figured I would be pretty good at this pastime but found myself stumped by the first one: “And we’re walking, and we’re walking.” The line sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it in the 1993 film Dave, in which Kevin Kline portrays a presidential look-alike. That was pretty much the end of the game. However, I ask you to play it with me now! The following quotes are from my personal HQFs. (The answers appear at the end of this post.) If you guess five or more of the corresponding movies correctly, well-done! If you get eight to ten right, you are probably my sister.

  1. “Watch out for that first step—it’s a doozy!”
  2. “Where’s the rest of this moose?”
  3. “Eight o’clock? I don’t know. That’s when I rearrange my sock drawer.”
  4. “You make someone a bridesmaid, and they shit all over you.”
  6. “I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”
  7. “Yes, Mrs. Mandelbaum, this one I’ll meet.”
  8. “Oh, that Dorothy. The hair, the teeth, and the smell. That Dorothy.”
  9. “Do you know what he was planning for next Friday night’s poker game, as a change of pace? Do you have any idea? A luau. A Hawaiian luau. Roast pork, fried rice, spare ribs—they don’t play poker like that in Honolulu!”
  10. “This land is not for sale. Someday I hope to build on it!”

The American Film Institute undertook the challenge of identifying the 100 greatest movie quotes of all time. Of the most quotable films mentioned earlier, seven have entries on AFI’s list. (Casablanca has six!) Jean Picker Firstenberg, president emerita of AFI, asserts, “Great movie quotes become part of our cultural vocabulary.” Indeed, we use them in our own lives and circumstances, for various purposes: To make a point. To sound clever. To entertain. To start a conversation. To bond with others. To recall the satisfaction evoked by watching the movie.

Ultimately, a memorable quote, from a movie, play, book, television show, or even commercial, is one that resonates with us. It might express an idea to which we would never be able to put words ourselves, witness a fundamental aspect of our character, or educate us about something meaningful. I am reminded of the double-blind-date scene from one of my own HQFs, When Harry Met Sally . . ., in which Marie (Carrie Fisher) quotes Jess (Bruno Kirby) to himself:

JESS: I think restaurants have become too important.

MARIE: I agree. “Restaurants are to people in the 80s what theater was to people in the 60s.” I read that in a magazine.

JESS: I wrote that.

Marie goes on to say, “That piece had a real impact on me.” Jess replies, “It spoke to you, and that pleases me.” Being spoken to can be a profound experience.

In fact, Jess and Marie leap into a cab together at the first opportunity.

Answers: 1. Groundhog Day, 2. Arthur, 3. The Sure Thing, 4. Sixteen Candles, 5. Night Shift, 6. This Is Spinal Tap, 7. Crossing Delancey, 8. Gregory’s Girl, 9. The Odd Couple, 10. Love and Death.

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

fire hydrantMy dog Cota regularly pees on a particular fire hydrant during our daily walks. Each time he reenacts the hackneyed image of a pooch relieving himself on the faucet that allows firefighters to tap into the municipal water supply, I shake my head and mutter, “So cliché.” A cliché can be a theme, characterization, or situation—such as man’s best friend urinating on a “Johnny pump”—that appears so often in film, television, literature, or art that it becomes boring.

Another type of cliché, which I encounter frequently in my work as an editor, is a sentence or phrase that conveys a common thought or concept—but that has become stale through overuse. An example would be “man’s best friend” in the previous paragraph. While such expressions may have been clever or compelling when they were introduced, they have long since lost their novelty and impact. Because clichés are dull by definition, I will offer just a sampling for illustration:

  • The whole ball of wax
  • The bee’s knees
  • Break the ice
  • Bury the hatchet
  • The elephant in the room
  • A fly on the wall
  • Jump the gun
  • Know the ropes
  • Barking up the wrong tree
  • Raining cats and dogs
  • Run circles around
  • Turn on a dime

Like me, you may have rolled your eyes, snickered, or experienced chest pains at the banality of these sayings. But I encourage you to pause and consider them. At one time, these word combinations colorfully and inventively captured ideas.

To demonstrate this point, I have collected clichés from outside the United States. Unfamiliar to us, they sound more exciting than our own clichés. Yet to the people who live in the originating countries, they are undoubtedly corny and tired.

  • Box of fluffy ducks (New Zealand, meaning, “I am fine; I am happy or doing well.”)
  • In fine fettle (Canada, meaning, “in good health” or “in good condition”)
  • Don’t piss on the chips (England, meaning, “Don’t put a damper on things.”)
  • There is no cow on the ice (Sweden, meaning, “There is no need to panic yet.”)
  • A face like a dropped meat pie (Australia, self-explanatory)

You should ditch clichés because they are unoriginal, ineffective, and lifeless—undesirable qualities for written and oral communication. As Oxford Dictionaries explains, “When you’re writing on a more formal level, it’s better to try to avoid using clichés. They tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused, and they may even create an impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought.” To me, clichés are instances of imprecise language; as such, they undermine the authority of the author, who appears unable or unwilling to state a point directly. Further, I have in mind the difficulty of translating clichés into other languages (i.e., if the book is enormously successful!), as they may not be understood by other cultures.

There are exceptions. I think clichés are generally acceptable in casual writing and conversation, social media posts, jokes, headlines, book titles, and blog posts about shunning them.

How do you remove a cliché from a business letter, college essay, public speech, work intended for publication, or other piece of formal writing? The first step is to recognize it. Clichés are so ingrained in how we express ourselves that integrating them into what we say is natural. When I identify a cliché in a manuscript, after weeping inwardly, I take the following steps to eradicate it:

  1. I think about the cliché’s meaning.
  2. I think about what the author is trying to say.
  3. If the cliché, despite its imprecision, reflects what the author is trying to say, I “translate” it back into the notion it represents.
  4. I rewrite the content accordingly.

Here are some examples (with clichés and their replacements in bold):

  • Before: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to come out of the woodwork.
  • After: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to appear suddenly or unexpectedly.
  • Before: The new company was in the fast lane and picking up speed.
  • After: The new company was taking aggressive action toward success.
  • Before: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it stopped me in my tracks.
  • After: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it struck me as profound.

At the end of the day, people are sick and tired of clichés. Give the people what they want—a breath of fresh air.