Aug 16, 2012

To capitalize, or not

"Evangelical" or "evangelical"?

"Pentecostal" or "pentecostal"?

Is it "deist" or "Deist," "atheist," or "Atheist"?

Capitalization of group identifiers in religion writing is not exactly consistent. Certain publishers, journals, and authors have their preferences. The Religion Stylebook is authoritative for news reporters who cover religion, and it has its capitalization rules ("Uppercase only when part of a formal name"). But, generally, there's a lot of variety, a lot of inconsistency, a lot of making-it-up-as-you-go.

The problem, specifically, is with names of groups that are not institutionally unified, and yet still can be thought of as groups and functions as groups. Groups where there's no official organization, and yet there could be.

There's a gap between proper nouns and collective nouns, and that's where these names fall.

There's also the matter of trying to avoid confusion. One may want to refer to "charismatic," and not capitalize the word since it's a very loose movement one is speaking of, and it's not a proper name or  official name, there's no master mailing list or headquarters. Yet, writing "the charismatic woman" is confusing. Writing "the woman who identifies with the movement known as 'charismatic,'" very cumbersome.

So, one capitalizes. Or not.

I don't have a solution to this. I have gone both ways. "Evangelical" I tend to capitalize. "Atheist" I don't. "Pentecostal" I used to not, but now I do. I'm not sure I could defend any of that.

I spent a good while, the other day, trying to decide if it should be "deist" or "Deist." Merriam Webster's -- so helpful -- notes that this is a "noun, often capitalized."

It's good to know, though, that this is not a new problem, nor one specific to a particular period of religion writing.

From Google Ngrams, for example, we find that early American authors and publishers couldn't agree on the capitalization rule for atheist/Atheist. Lowercase was the vastly dominant form in the last decade of the 17th century and capitalization was preferred in the 1660s, 1730s and 1750s.

There's even more disagreement about evangelical/Evangelical, with preferences appearing to swing dramatically from, say, the 1640s to the 1660s, and from the 1690s to the first decade of the 1700s:

Nor does it get sorted out, as a comparison of "evangelical" and "Evangelical" in American books published in the 20th century shows:

A preference emerges for the lowercase "atheism" in the 19th century -- which continues today -- but there's persistence in the capitalizers, too, not all of which can be explained the by the word appearing at the start of a sentence:

I don't know how much can really be drawn from these graphs. Maybe there are some social facts to be cited as explaining one style or the other at one time or another. The bigger picture, I suspect, is that we just fuddle along.

Which I take some peace in.