Friday, May 2, 2014

A Clifton Primer on Titles of Address and Rank

Have you ever wondered when you should capitalize titles or rank? I have. In fact, I’ve practically lost sleep over it.

In my story I have generals and lieutenants, a captain-protector, a guard-captain and made up titles to boot. While steeped in the writing flurry I passed them by with nary a wink. But, as I came to final, these little demons began to claw and howl.

And because you really need my opinion on this matter, I'm going to share my conclusion. This is not fact, it is my opinion, and entirely subjective based on you, your genre and your style.

I’ve seen contradicting advice online for when to capitalize and when not. (I know. Weird, right?) In general it seemed fairly consistent to leave them lowercase when not attached to a name and when not in direct address. “Hello, Lieutenant, have you seen Commander Poopypants? Looks like sarge is up to it again.” But then I got some mixed advice and went astray.

After all, shouldn’t “Sir” be capitalized in direct address? It’s a sign of respect. But it is only an honorific, not a title—unless you happen to be Paul McCartney, in which case it IS a title. “Hello, Sir.” He’s a knight of the Order of Beatle, ya know.

There are other ambiguities, and it seems to be fairly common for made-up titles to go tall in fiction. I’m reading Joe Abercrombie’s book, The Blade Itself, and Pyr/Joe went with liberal capitalizations. And then there are the Aes Sedai (from the Wheel of Time), capitalized in every reference.

My rules:
1. Titles or rank are to be capitalized in direct address, and when paired with the person's name.
2. Lowercase is used if the title/rank is used as a descriptor and when used to refer to the person without a name paired with the title.
3. If the title is unique (as in ONE person in ALL of creation holds it), then you capitalize.

1. "Hello, General. Good day, is it not?" AND "Hammerblood watched General Steelclaw swing the meaty drumstick like a great and greasy mace."
2. "My general, Dormir, gritted his teeth." AND “The guard-captain paced the tent with slumped shoulders.”
3. "Did you meet The Bearer of the Cups of Baerelon, yet?" --Capitalized, even though not in direct address, and no name pair.

Some caveats and clarifications that may confound (as they did me):
Military organizations of the modern day may overcapitalize, like Marine and Navy SEALS. Then there are REALTORS, and so on. This was coined aptly by another blogger as being part of "institutional pride". Now, these are all likely trademarked and perhaps correctly capitalized, but if you are working in a fantasy/sci-fi setting for a populace without toilets or TV dinners, trademark considerations are probably low on their priority list. So, it wouldn’t be relevant to capitalize your specialized military rank of beartroopers or war orcs…unless you really, really wanted to. (But then, you need to keep it consistent.)

My reason for agreeing with this logic is simple: If I overcapitalize, it takes away from the visual impact. And if there are ten thousand war orcs, my text will be littered with tall letters that don't need emphasis. In my book, Veil of a Warrior, I have readers that "read" nature, such as weather and so on. Some are magic users and can see beyond the realm of mortal man. I wanted to capitalize these, they felt important, and I wanted to distinguish between a "reader" and a reader in the regular sense of the word. However, I ultimately avoiding doing so.

And think about the occasional confusion. Let’s take for example “lord”. A lord is a pretty big thing, as important (to some) as, say, an Aes Sedai. But if I go around Lording it up for all to see, what if there is a god figure in my book, such as the Holy Lord, the Lord, or for Wheel of Time: The Dark Lord. That could confuse a reader, and that is why—for now—I’m sticking to my rules.

However, I really, really want to capitalize my reader magi, so I reserve the right to hypocrisy.

Agree? Disagree? Please share. I'd love to have the discussion.

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