I may have to ruffle some feathers with this one.
I believe that we are all allowed to choose one thing about which we can be unbearably pedantic. For some maybe, it is dishwashing methods or the orientation of the toilet roll. For others, perhaps it is the pronunciation of certain words or the way people drive.
For me it is the unnecessary capitalisation of personal pronouns and other words in reference to and as reverence for God.
Take this example:
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
- Psalm 119:103 (ESV)
Importantly, the ‘your’ in ‘your words’ should not (and does not in most major Bible translations) have a capital ‘y’.
And yet, many Christians, if writing this sentence themselves, would choose to capitalise the possessive pronoun ‘your’. This is because the word ‘your’ is being used to substitute for the word ‘God’: the verse is talking about God’s words.
This is called reverential capitalisation: the idea that a word that is used in place of ‘God’ should have a capital letter.
Grammatically speaking (and this whole article is grammatically speaking), there is no such thing as reverential capitalisation. In English, we capitalise to denote specificity not honour, glory or majesty.
Here are some examples of properly capitalised words: Joseph Stalin, World War One, the Boxing Day Tsunami, Nero, Satan, Covid-19 and Beelzebub. None of these words are capitalised to show deference; rather, we capitalise them to show that these are proper nouns, that is, specific people, things and events.
So, where did we get the idea of reverential capitalisation?
No one seems to know.
From my research, it started with some hymns and Bible translations in the 1800s. However, it was also true that in the 1800s that there were no standardised rules around capitalisation (sometimes, every word in a sentence would be capitalised).
Influentially, some popular hymns in hymnbooks in the late 19th century and early 20th century did capitalise pronouns when they referred to God. ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ is one such culprit.
It’s not hard to imagine that perhaps parishioners would return home after Sunday worship believing that this was some kind of rule. This mistake in orthography was also thenperpetuated bya couple of popular Bible translations in the mid to late 20th century (I’m looking at you, New King James Version).
Combine this effect with the completely understandable misconception that capitalisation symbolises respect (after all, words like ‘God’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’ and ‘Holy Ghost’ are capitalised) and you end up with the erroneous concept of reverential capitalisation.
Incidentally, this is a uniquely English language problem. The original languages of the Bible did not have capital letters at all. So any biblical argument in favour of capitalising the personal pronoun is non-existent.
Why does this matter?
Let the people capitalise you say. So what if it does not actually express what they think they are expressing. Surely it’s a ‘live and let live’ (or ‘write and let write’) situation?
Well, first of all, as mentioned above this is my one thing about which I can be pedantic— don’t take that away from me.
But more seriously, it’s sloppy grammar that creates confusion. It causes writers to be uncertain of what words need a capital letter.
Consider phrases like ‘His Strength’, ‘Your Words’ and ‘His Promises’. Since the pronoun is capitalised, not capitalising the noun seems strange, incomplete and awkward; so the noun often gets a capital letter too.
However, this merely compounds the grammatical error. Frankly, there is even less justification for capitalising those words (why do we need to show reverence to promises, even God’s promises?) and this confuses the reader.
The reason for the uncertainty and subsequent inconsistency in employing the reverential capitalisation ‘rule’ is because there is no such rule. And because the rule is non-existent there are therefore no clear boundaries about how it is to be applied.
Secondly, reverential capitalisation in Bible translations can artificially narrow the meaning of the text.
One example from the New King James Version:
Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,
‘Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.’
- Psalm 2:2b - 3
By capitalising ‘His Anointed’ and ‘Their’, the verse has restricted the interpretational scope of the text. That is, in the above translation, the verse can only be referring to Jesus as ‘His Anointed’ and not, say, a messiah figure (messiah means ‘anointed’) such as King David which was an open possibility in the original.
Stop worrying and write well
Ultimately, I write this not to attack anyone who has tried to apply the reverential capitalisation rule. I write this to free you. You can stop worrying. You are not showing any disrespect to God by not capitalising the ‘his’ in ‘his divine love’. You are not being cavalier by writing ‘your holy precepts’ with a small ‘y’.
Christians, let's forgo unnecessary capitalisation and write with clarity.
Based in Christchurch, Joshua is married to Jacinda and enjoys writing as a way of keeping his thoughts in order. He also freelances. You can contact him via the bird site (Twitter) @I_do_words