3 Types of Word Treatment

By Mark Nichol

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Spelling, capitalization, and italicization are three aspects of writing that careful writers will attend to. This post discusses the importance of recognizing standards and making conscious decisions when contemplating deviating from them.

Employing proper spelling is one of the fundamentals of composition. Unfortunately, the explosive increase in writing opportunities afforded by the internet and social media makes it easier for careless writers to spread viral errors. Where in the past, few print publications would allow mistakes like definately and predominately, today, such misspellings are rampant on websites and blogs and in texts, not to mention in some professionally produced print publications and on occasional television broadcasts—including in chyrons, the electronically generated captions that appear below talking heads on TV.

Deteriorating writing skills and declining editing standards result in frequent spelling errors, and the only effective defense is a good offense: Proactively double-check spelling—using not just spell-checking functions (which are not infallible) but also print or online dictionaries (which are virtually perfectly reliable).

Dictionaries and other writing resources also protect writers from using incorrect or outdated word forms. For example, the few remaining hyphenated compound nouns are undergoing an evolution, as writers increasingly omit the hyphen and treat these terms as closed compounds—sometimes in a conscious decision to accelerate what is almost always an inevitable process but far more often simply out of ignorance. Changes from, for example, mind-set to mindset and start-up to startup are inevitable, but the former choice in each case is still the form listed in most dictionaries, so avoid the variant until it becomes the norm.

Capitalization, which, with few exceptions, denotes a proper noun, in such usage distinguishes the specific from the generic, but it is employed erroneously primarily in two contexts.

First, generic job titles are often mistakenly capitalized. When Jane Smith is identified as a senator, capitalize the job title if it appears before her name: “Senator Jane Smith.” And when the job title substitutes for the person’s name in direct address—when someone says or writes, for example, “Excuse me, Senator, do you have a moment?” the word is capitalized. In government or legal documents, the “publisher” may insist on capitalizing the job title even in isolation: “The Senator abstained.” But in all other usage, the term is generic—Jane Smith is being described as one of those entities designated as a senator.

Take care, too, about capitalizing only exact job titles. When referring to Thomas Jones, whose official designation is director of communications and marketing, write “Director of Communications and Marketing Thomas Jones,” to be formal, or “marketing director Thomas Jones,” in more casual contexts, but not “Marketing Director Thomas Jones.” (And after the name, the job title is almost invariably not capitalized; a rare exception is the exact name of an endowed professorship. Capitalization is also standard after names on lists, on résumés, and so on.) In addition, descriptions of people that identify their profession or role but are not formal job titles are not capitalized: “The truck belongs to electrician John Smith”; “She thanked team captain Mary Jones for her support.”

Similarly, a term identifying a nonliving entity should be capitalized only as part of the full name: for example, “the Mississippi River,” but “the river” (with exceptions for poetic license, as when such an entity is personified), or “the Development Committee,” but “the committee” (again, in legalese, such terms may appear capitalized).

Italics serve to call attention to a word, phrase, or sentence; two primary functions are to identify a foreign term and to emphasize one or more words the writer wishes the reader to notice. However, the pitfall in the case of both functions is overuse. In the case of apparently foreign words or phrases, double-check that the term is in fact still technically considered foreign; many such words and phrases have been assimilated into English (evidenced by their inclusion in English dictionaries) and are no longer considered to require emphasis. (Note, too, that some writers and publishers decide that when a foreign term is used repeatedly in one piece of content, and it is defined or explained on first reference, it is italicized only in that first instance.) And when considering whether to italicize a word, phrase, or sentence to make it stand out, think twice about whether the emphasis is merited or helpful; frequent employment of any tool or technique can diminish its effectiveness.

A third common function of italics is to call attention to a word being used to name itself rather than the concept for which the word stands; compare “Moron originally denoted a mildly retarded person” and “A moron is a stupid person.” Because of this distinction, italics should not be employed to introduce a term unless the word is described as a word, as in the disclaimer “In observing the historical context of psychiatry in the early twentieth century, we use moron according to its original medical definition: ‘a mildly retarded person.’”

In spelling, capitalization, and italicization, as in any aspect of writing, the writer or publisher may choose to deviate from accepted standards, but the ultimate consideration should be whether the reader is being served by a decision that affects one or more aspects, or whether communication is being compromised rather than enhanced. In addition, a writer may ignore these standards for artistic reasons, such as in representing dialect or a fictional character’s illiteracy or overly emphatic speech patterns. Again, however, the writer should weigh the consequences of such a decision and practice moderation.

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1 Response to “3 Types of Word Treatment”

  • venqax

    “Employing proper spelling is one of the fundamentals of composition.”
    Agreed. And yet suggest that employing proper pronunciation is one of the fundamentals of speaking and you get, at best, perplexed looks, at worst, called a grammar [sic] Nazi, snob, elitist, pedant. Go figgur.

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