Capital Losses

When a noun is proper, or not

The coming fall elections promise a lot of intrigue. We will read in The New York Times all about the “Tea Party,” while the Associated Press will deliver a lot of news about the “tea party.”

The intrigue won’t involve politics, but capitalization.

In March, the AP added “tea party” to its stylebook, defining it thus: “Populist movement opposing Washington political establishment.” “Tea Party” isn’t in the Times stylebook, but there’s a topics page saying that the “Tea Party Movement is a diffuse American grass-roots group that taps into antigovernment sentiments.” And capitalizes Tea Party, too.

On the “Ask the Editor” blog (available with a subscription to the online stylebook), AP Stylebook editors give their reasoning: “Lowercase as a movement because tea party is not at this point a formal organization, entity or event—historical, such as Boston Tea Party, or otherwise. In states where it has been established as an official party, it’s uppercase, as in Nevada Tea Party and Tea Party Express.”

On the other hand, AP style dubs the current economic doldrums the “Great Recession,” while many others call it merely the “great recession.” AP’s Ask the Editor again: “AP accepted the term because it is widely used in government and financial circles to describe the financial meltdown and economic downturn, which seems to have been arrested short of a depression.”

Does that mean AP is in favor of the recession but against the tea party movement? Hardly. Whether to capitalize or not is often a matter not of “right” or “wrong,” but of style, or in the case of some languages, of convention. It’s no more “wrong” to call the site of the World Trade Center “ground zero” (most stylebooks’ choice) than it is to call it “Ground Zero” (the choice of many politicians and people).

But capitalization conveys to many people a seriousness, a formality that gives the capitalized word gravitas. Capital letters jump off a page—a fact not ignored by entities that urge that their capitalization be followed for names or acronyms: Which word stands out more: Unicef or UNICEF? Capitalization calls attention to itself, and many publications try to minimize that.

But keeping that style consistent is a bitch, (not to mention getting everyone who works for a publication to follow it). AP recently switched to “website” instead of “Web site,” but still capitalizes “Web.” The brand-new Sixteenth Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, which CJR follows, switched to “website,” too, but now lowercases “web,” staying consistent. CMOS, though, capitalizes “Maine coon cat” and “German short-haired pointer,” but lowercases “swiss cheese” and “arabic numerals,” a seeming inconsistency of its own. (AP and most dictionaries capitalize “Swiss cheese” and “Arabic numerals.”) No offense is intended: It’s a style decision, not a nationalistic one, and each publication has its internal logic to follow, though it might appear inconsistent at first glance.

Time for a Scotch (AP). Or a scotch. (CMOS). At least nearly everyone lets you call it “whisky” now, instead of “whiskey.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.