That Capital “I”

When I first went to work at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, around 1988, I quickly learned to capitalize the I in “island” when it referred to Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard was “the Island.” Nantucket, Naushon, or Manhattan were just “the island.”

Is it "the island" or "the Island"?

Is it “the island” or “the Island”?

This was also true at the Vineyard Gazette. In those days, the Gazette regularly referred to the Times as “the other paper,” and the Times regularly referred to the Gazette as “an Edgartown weekly.” Capping the I in “island” was about the only thing they agreed on.

Capping the I in “island” when it refers to Martha’s Vineyard has caught on. Lots of people outside the newspaper biz do it. Some people, other writers especially, notice that I don’t do it. Why not? Because Martha’s Vineyard is no more “the Island” than Travvy is “the Dog.” Because an initial cap doesn’t make a thing more important. And because if readers can’t figure out from context what island I’m talking about, my writing is getting sloppy.

When I worked for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, however, I capped the I in “the Island has six towns” because that was part of the “house style,” one of the conventions we used to make stories written by a variety of writers look like they belonged in the same paper. Capping the I isn’t a matter of right or wrong. It’s a matter of style — convention, in other words.

Some tools of the trade for a U.S. copyeditor

Some tools of the trade for a U.S. copyeditor

English, like any language, is riddled with conventions. In English the days of the week and the months of the year are conventionally capped. In the Romance languages they aren’t. Arabic manages to make do with no capital letters at all.

Much of what distinguishes American English from British English from Australian English from Indian English is convention. Style. American English writes realize, traveler, and color. British English writes realise, traveller, and colour. What you and I write depends on where we learned the language, but we probably understand either version without difficulty.

As a copyeditor I pay close attention to these conventions. When editing for a U.S. publisher, I use U.S. spellings. I do not, however, cap the I in island when it refers to Martha’s Vineyard. Conventions vary considerably depending on time, place, and the intended audience. Matters of right and wrong vary a lot less. No matter which side of which ocean they’re on, conscientious English-speakers write “I am going to the store,” not “I are going to the store.”

When conventions become entrenched enough, they’re often taken for matters of right and wrong. (In some quarters, they’re even taken for matters of life and death, or at least pass and flunk.) Most of us had rules drummed into our heads — often, it seems, by a junior high or middle school English teacher — that we’ve taken as gospel ever since: Never end a sentence with a preposition. Never split an infinitive. Etc., etc., etc.

By the time we finish school, the language seems so laden with dos and don’ts, always and nevers, that it’s no wonder so many of us loathe the very idea of writing. Here’s the good news: Most of those dos and don’ts, always and nevers, are conventions, and many of them aren’t even that. They’re zombie rules. As explained by linguist and writer Geoffrey Pullum:

Though dead, they shamble mindlessly on. The worst thing about zombie rules, I believe, is not the pomposity of those advocating them, or the time-wasting character of the associated gotcha games, but the way they actually make people’s writing worse. They promote insecurity, and nervous people worrying about their language write worse than relaxed people enjoying their language.

Hear, hear, hear!

Unfortunately some of the most diligent enforcers of zombie rules and arbitrary conventions are copyeditors and publishers. Geoffrey Pullum blogged about this earlier this month: “You’re Wrong and I’m Changing the Subject.” A copyeditor went through Pullum’s manuscript and changed every instance of though to although. When he asked why, she couldn’t explain — but did say he could stet (restore) the originals if he wanted.

I wasn’t surprised, either by the mindless changing of though to although or by the copyeditor’s inability or unwillingness to explain why she did it. The publisher’s house style probably insists on although. The copyeditor’s probably afraid that if she doesn’t follow the house style, she won’t get work from that publisher. But when someone who writes as well and knows as much about language as Geoffrey Pullum asks why, those “reasons” look pretty puny.

When I posted a link to Pullum’s article in an online editors’ forum, I noted that one of my publisher clients insisted on toward, not towards, but I’d just caught myself changing towards to toward in a job for a different publisher. The commenters zeroed in on towards vs. toward, ignoring Pullum’s article and thereby proving his point. The USians insisted that toward was American and towards was British. One even said that U.S. writers were “notorious” for ignoring the distinction.

Eh wot? My theory is that the distinction is as artificial as the capping of the I in island when you mean Martha’s Vineyard. Wonder of wonders, a savvy copyeditor, one Jonathon Owen, tested this for his master’s thesis, came to a similar conclusion, and summarized:

In a nutshell, towards is seemingly rare in American English because copy editors make it rare. Lexicographers note its rarity in print and list toward as the primary form. Usage writers conclude that towards is British and should be avoided in American writing. Their prescriptions, which appear to be based on actual usage, then give editors added support for deleting the -s, and the signal is strengthened in a feedback loop. We’re just using past editorial practice as justification for current editorial practice.

I’d push this a little further: We’re enforcing this and other spurious distinctions and “zombie rules” in order to (1) justify our own existence, and (2) look down our noses at anyone who doesn’t know the rules.

And no, this is not just about editing. You already figured that out? You’re way ahead of me.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to That Capital “I”

  1. Anda Divine says:

    “Because Martha’s Vineyard is no more ‘the Island’ than Travvy is ‘the Dog’.” Sorry to disagree with you! In informal writings I frequently refer to my dog Goldie as “Dog,” a term of deep affection that acknowledges her specialness (at least to me).

    Like

  2. tompostpile says:

    This Islander is still Away, but although being a traveller, enjoying life amongst the westerners, is pleased to read this excellent Blogpost. We head towards home soon. (I also happen to think that as a color name “grey” seems much more accurate than “gray”.)

    Like

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