email - April 2018

Capitalization Punishment

Was it wrong for us to capitalize the phrase, “theory of evolution?”

Even though this is the April Fools’ issue, we must address two serious issues (spelling and capitalization) raised by one of the sentences in an email we received from Steve. He wrote,

I am normally rather loathed to capitalise ‘evolution’!

Spelling

Should we have printed his sentence this way?

I am normally rather loathed to capitalise [sic] ‘evolution’!

There is no question sic should be italicized because it is a foreign word. Sic is the Latin word for “thus.” It means, “We know it is wrong—but that’s exactly what he wrote. He wrote it thus.”

But Steve is presumably British, and “capitalise” is correct British spelling for “capitalize.” It is wrong here in America; but it isn’t wrong in England.

We often quote from the journal, Nature, which is a British professional scientific journal. We don’t change their spelling to American English because we want to keep the British “flavour” of the journal, and not “colour” it with our uniquely American spelling. When we don’t change the British spelling, we fear that some American readers might think we can’t spel.

We have readers all over the world, so we try to keep our American idiosyncrasies down to a minimum, avoiding American slang whenever possible (or providing a footnote when we feel compelled to use a uniquely American phrase).

When cutting and pasting Steve’s question into this column, Microsoft Word automatically corrected Steve’s spelling. I had to manually change the spelling back. If any of our quotes from Nature articles in the past used American spelling, it wasn’t our fault! Microsoft did it!

Capitalization

Spelling isn’t nearly as important as the second question, which is, “Does the theory of evolution deserve to be capitalized?” It is a question we have wrestled with many times over the past two decades, and have not consistently answered it. Sometimes, in the past, we have capitalized the theory of evolution, and sometimes we haven’t.

It all boils down to whether “the theory of evolution” is a phrase or a proper name. If it is a descriptive phrase, then it definitely should not be capitalized. On the other hand, Darwinian Evolution is the name of a particular theory (just like Punctuated Equilibrium). The names of specific theories should be capitalized because they are proper nouns (even if they aren’t proper theories).

From Now On

Now, having given the question far more thought than it really deserves, we have made an April Resolution that we will no longer capitalize “the theory of evolution” because there really is no such thing. There are many different foolish notions that claim to be “the theory of evolution.” Proper names refer to one specific thing. Since there is no consensus regarding what “the theory of evolution” really is, it can’t be the proper name of anything.

Please forgive us for capitalizing the theory of evolution in the past. We promise not to do it again.

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