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Has the use of capitalisation in the English language changed in recent years?
Thread poster: A. & S. Witte
A. & S. Witte
Germany
Local time: 08:45
Member (2007)
German to English
+ ...
Dec 12, 2007

I am asking this, because it appears to me that a lot less words are capitalised in English now than was the case when I used to live and work in the UK. I have not lived there for 10 years and this is one subject that is difficult to find out about when living in Germany, as here they will usually be happy with quite a lot of capitalisation in English.

My observations can, then, only be based on my daily Internet research of terminology. When researching terms, and looking in particular for pages on which the terminology is to be found in countries where the principal language is English, I notice increasingly that terms that I am quite sure would have been capitalised when I was at school, as well as 20 years ago when I worked in lawyers' offices in Scotland, now appear in all small letters.

By way of example, names of school subjects, e.g. Mathematics, Chemistry, used to be capitalised. Is this still the case, or not? I need to know, because, by analogy, I usually capitalise names of commercial "subjects" (e.g. "Sales Development"), but these terms would presumably also now be in small letters if school subjects are no longer capitalised.

And are names referring to laws capitalised or not these days? I am quite sure that, when I was still in the UK, it would read "Competition Law", for example. Now, as I understand, it is correct to write "competition law". Is that true? I suppose it is similar to the school subjects case.

Twenty years ago in Scotland at least, the names of the two principal parties in a contract would be capitalised throughout, e.g. "Plaintiff" and "Defendant", or "hereinafter named the Contractor", followed by "The Contractor....". What is correct these days, please?

I would welcome comments from native speakers of English living in an English-speaking country.

Many thanks.

Astrid


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liz askew  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 07:45
Member (2007)
French to English
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Capitalisation Dec 12, 2007

The answer to this will depend on the writers of the English sites you are looking at.

In relation to the English language in general, I would say that you are still correct to think that "Mathematics, English, Geography, History" all begin with a capital letter. To my knowledge this rule is still applied by teachers here in the UK - I have just received my daughter's report from school, and these subjects are with a capital letter, plus "Art & Design", "Religious Education" and "Science".....the list goes on.

In relation to Laws, I think you are also correct in stating that the name of a law should have capital letters.

Perhaps it is a question of generation and education? Certainly my children are still being taught correct grammatical English at school, here in Portsmouth (a State School - Comprehensive).

As linguists we shouldn't let standards drop, just because they are being dropped elsewhere. No doubt we will have some contradicting opinions on this forum.

I will state that I am nearly 53 years of age, so this could well have a bearing on my thoughts and opinions; and of course my background and education...

Liz


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A. & S. Witte
Germany
Local time: 08:45
Member (2007)
German to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Glad to hear that such things are still capitalised Dec 12, 2007

Hi Liz,

It's certainly helpful to hear your confirmation that I am not wrong with my capitals, after all. You are only about 3 years older than me, so we are of the same generation. I keep insisting that I am only 49 years old, but I will be the big 5-0 in just 16 days' time!

We were told, however, by the Linguistics Professor at university that language constantly changes and that what the majority of people do with it becomes right in the end.

I am translating something very big at the moment (over 40,000 words), about Trademark Law, and I have to keep referring to the pages of EU web sites. I am supposed to use official EU terminology, which I have been doing. However, whoever translated the documents for the EU has written the names of laws, among other things, with small letters, and I thought maybe it must, after all, be right, these days, if it is EU policy to have it this way (because they surely check the translations they receive and implement their in-house policy.... or do they bother?).

Anyhow, thanks for answering and have a nice evening,

Astrid


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Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:45
Italian to English
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School subjects Dec 12, 2007

I'd capitalise History, Geography, Mathematics etc. in the context of school lessons but not in other circumstances. English and other languages/nationalities are always capitalised whatever the context.

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RobinB  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 08:45
German to English
Lots of changes Dec 12, 2007

Hi Astrid,

One of the problems that we Scots face is that Scots English is often quite different to Saxon English. Capitalisation in legal contexts is just one of the areas where differences sometimes arise - I've been seeing this a lot in recent years due to my correspondence with various Scottish law firms on private matters.

But while we certainly capitalise the names of statutory instruments (Companies Act, Insolvency Act, Capital Requirements Directive, etc.) I really don't think we should be capitalising more general terms such as 'competition law', 'company law', 'trademark law' and so on. I think that giving those general/generic terms initial caps looks fussy and excessive.

I wouldn't capitalise the names of what you call 'commercial subjects' (sales development, market strategy, accounting, financial control, etc.) unless they're the names of actual units in a business entity. I think I stopped giving maths, chemistry, biology, etc. initial caps the moment I left school (which was before you, as I'm that wee bit older than you).

I agree that key terms in a contract should be given initial caps. But perhaps that's something you should better ask Margaret M. about.

Robin


[Edited at 2007-12-12 21:37]


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A. & S. Witte
Germany
Local time: 08:45
Member (2007)
German to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks for your comments, Dec 12, 2007

Marie-Hélène and Robin.

Robin, I never knew you were Scottish! Anyhow, when I was a legal secretary in Scotland (chiefly in my twenties) they seemed to capitalise almost as much as in German in some documents! I realise that the capitalisation habits of those Scottish lawyers still affect my use of capitals when translating legal documents now, and - as I said - it is my impression that German lawyers are on the whole happy with all the capital letters they can get for their money, however I just seem to notice an increasing use of small letters in the world at large, e.g. for "plaintiff" (which I always write "Plaintiff"), and such words are also sometimes in dictionaries with small letters. Even Romain writes "plaintiff" (with a small letter).

Astrid


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RobinB  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 08:45
German to English
Dictionaries an' a' that Dec 12, 2007

AEJTrans wrote:
Robin, I never knew you were Scottish!


Fife. Bonthrone being an old West Howe of Fife name (Auchtermuchty, Markinch, Falkland, Strathmiglo area)

Even Romain writes "plaintiff" (with a small letter).


That's perfectly legitimate and good practice. Only proper nouns should be given initial caps in a dictionary entry. Of course you can then add a note to the effect that in certain contexts, an initial cap is the standard convention, but I think that would be beyond the scope of an otherwise useful dictionary like Romain.

Robin


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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 07:45
Dutch to English
+ ...
Or you could just ask me .... Dec 12, 2007

RobinB wrote:

I agree that key terms in a contract should be given initial caps. But perhaps that's something you should better ask Margaret M. about.

Robin


... even though I'm a mere 37

I always use initial caps for Claimant (note not Plaintiff for England/Wales these days), Defendant, Seller, Buyer, Pledgor, Pledgee, etc, in contracts - whether translating or drafting from scratch in EN.

Main thing is to be consistent throughout.

And of course, always capitalise throughout what is capitalised in any definitions clause.

I agree though with what Robyn says about competition law, etc in general (not capitalised)


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A. & S. Witte
Germany
Local time: 08:45
Member (2007)
German to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks for your replies Dec 12, 2007

Good evening, Debbie,

Thanks for clarifying the matter.

I suppose, then, that there is a difference in capitalisation between the EU documents (legislation) and the normal briefs between the parties that I translate (i.e. the former will not require as much capitalisation).

The EU documents concerned (which contain small letters a lot of the time) are, for example:

http://oami.europa.eu/en/mark/aspects/pdf/4094enCV.pdf

In this document, among others, "plaintiff" and "defendant" are written small, however I understand from your comments, Robin and Debbie, that that may be due to the fact that it does not constitute litigation between parties.

Thanks for clarification about the dictionaries, Robin. And, by the way, I used to travel through Markinch on the train; it was one of those little places where the train never stopped, and, if it did, you were in trouble, because then it took simply hours to get from Edinburgh to Aberdeen.

Goodnight all (although I will be translating for another 3 hours yet tonight),

Astrid


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 08:45
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
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The purpose of capitals in such a text Dec 12, 2007

I'm a bilingual second-language speaker of English.

AEJTrans wrote:
And are names referring to laws capitalised or not these days? I am quite sure that, when I was still in the UK, it would read "Competition Law", for example. Now, as I understand, it is correct to write "competition law". Is that true? I suppose it is similar to the school subjects case.


I can't comment on the internasional situation, but AFAIK you would use the capital letters if it is the name or nickname of the law itself, but lowercase if you're referring to the particular type of legislation in general.

Twenty years ago in Scotland at least, the names of the two principal parties in a contract would be capitalised throughout, e.g. "Plaintiff" and "Defendant", or "hereinafter named the Contractor", followed by "The Contractor....".


I also find these in financial reports. The purpose of capitalisation, as I understand it, is to identify the specific as opposed to the generic. If Company X is identified early in the text as "the Company", then all mention of "the Company" elsewhere in the text are unambiguously taken to mean "Company X". So if the text read "The company took over the Company", the first company would not be Company X but some other company that the context should make clear, and the second company would be Company X.

I use capitalisation in my translations (into English too) when it serves this purpose. However, there is usually only one plaintiff (or plaintiffs) and one defendant in a legal notice, so there is no reason why capitals should be used. But legal notices to be used for legal purposes should get a final proofread by legal eagles anyway -- I only have experience in translating them for the newspaper.

Similarly I would not capitalise lessor and lessee in a lease contract. If I'm asked to proofread such a document, I would not change uppercase to lowercase, however, unless the usage is widely inconsistent and I have to choose one option.

As for school subjects, the difference between these are hopefully clear:

He studied computers at university.
He studied Computers at university.

The bigger question, however, is... whether "university" should be capitalised.


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A. & S. Witte
Germany
Local time: 08:45
Member (2007)
German to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Are you serious? Dec 12, 2007

Lawyer-Linguist wrote:

I always use initial caps for Claimant (note not Plaintiff for England/Wales these days), Defendant, Seller, Buyer, Pledgor, Pledgee, etc, in contracts - whether translating or drafting from scratch in EN.



Hi Debbie,

Do you actually mean that they always say "Claimant" instead of "Plaintiff" in England and Wales now?

It took me ages to get used to "Plaintiff" and "Defendant". When I did the first ever translation for the German lawyers I remember I wrote "Pursuer" and "Defender", because those were the terms we had always used in lawyers' offices in Aberdeen, and they immediately told me I was wrong...

Ah! The world keeps changing! I had better finish this translation now, before it goes out of date with the terminology...

Astrid


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A. & S. Witte
Germany
Local time: 08:45
Member (2007)
German to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks, Samuel! Dec 12, 2007

Thanks a lot for your useful input and clear reasoning, Samuel!


Astrid


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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 07:45
Dutch to English
+ ...
Claimant vs Plaintiff Dec 13, 2007

AEJTrans wrote:

Lawyer-Linguist wrote:

I always use initial caps for Claimant (note not Plaintiff for England/Wales these days), Defendant, Seller, Buyer, Pledgor, Pledgee, etc, in contracts - whether translating or drafting from scratch in EN.



Hi Debbie,

Do you actually mean that they always say "Claimant" instead of "Plaintiff" in England and Wales now?

It took me ages to get used to "Plaintiff" and "Defendant". When I did the first ever translation for the German lawyers I remember I wrote "Pursuer" and "Defender", because those were the terms we had always used in lawyers' offices in Aberdeen, and they immediately told me I was wrong...

Ah! The world keeps changing! I had better finish this translation now, before it goes out of date with the terminology...

Astrid




Changed with the "new" Civil Procedure Rules (CPR)

Think as far back as 1999, but would have to check the date as I wasn't working/living in the UK then.

In 1999, I was stlll chasing assets in South Africa in the various estates in which I was appointed liquidator - now that was fun.


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Richard Benham  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 08:45
German to English
+ ...
Some change, but not as much as you might think! Dec 24, 2007

Hello.

I am currently in France, but normally live in Australia. I can confirm that there is less capitalization going on than there used to be, but I need to clarify a few points.

Names of school subjects were only ever (well, in living memory&emdash;I am aware that there was a tendency in the past to capitalize all nouns, as in modern German) capitalized in the context of the school system. You would never write, for instance, "My son is gifted at Mathematics." It is just silly. But you could say, "My son got an A for Mathematics." This refers to the subject as a division of the formal examination system, so to speak

Similar considerations apply to the example of "sales development". If it is the name of a department in a company, then it should be capitalized, at least for internal consumption. It is simply wrong, however, to to capitalize it when not referring to a specific company. You would write "The sales development managers of many companies often find...", assuming you wanted to write such stuff. By the same token, "General Manager" is capitalized, at least in-house, when referring to the GM of a particular company, but not in more general contexts.

In legal documents, "XYZ plc, hereinafter referred to as the Contractor", is standard. The word "Contractor" is used here as an ersatz proper noun. Even in the contract itself, if there were cause to refer to other contractors, this word would not be capitalized, as it would defeat the whole purpose of capitalizing the word, which was to use it as a synonym for "XYZ plc". Similarly, names of particular pieces of legislation are capitalized, but you would not capitalize "Competition Law", unless using it say as the name of a unit that formed part of a law degree. The same goes for the Plaintiff/Claimant/Pursuer (the last very Scots) in a particular court case, as opposed to a claimant in some unspecified court case. The capitalized version is used in legal documents as a quasi-proper noun.

I used to have a paper copy of the Guardian style sheet, but I can't find the current version on-line. However, I do remember that it said to use "chancellor Joe Blow" (I think it was actually Gordon Brown), rather than "Chancellor Joe Blow", on the basis that "chancellor" was a job, not a title. I grew up regarding "Chancellor" in that context as abbreviating "Chancellor of the Exchequer", which is some kind of official title, I would have thought, and thus deserved to be capitalized So this would seem to be an example of change.


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Astrid Elke Witte  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 08:45
Member (2002)
German to English
+ ...
Thanks for clarifying the matter at length Dec 26, 2007

Hi Richard!

Thanks for clarifying the various points at length. Your example concerning the chancellor is particularly interesting. Yes, I would have wanted to capitalise "Chancellor", and for the same reason as you: because I am used to the title "Chancellor of the Exchequer".

I will bear in mind all the instances mentioned in this thread and try to develop a style sheet out of them, which I could paste somewhere on the site if it is of interest.

Many thanks.

Astrid


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