Quotes, Italics, Capitalization and Asterisks

factThe problem I am currently facing is very common, and the two solutions I offer may appear retrogressive and not welcome. Nevertheless, I urge that my second suggestion be adopted.

The problem arises when one wants to refer to a word as an item in a language regardless of its meaning. In my case, I am currently writing about the role of language in the genesis of theories about natural and social phenomena. It often requires that I talk about specific words and phrases, how these get to be used in different circumstances and contexts. The word that comes up most frequently is in fact, fact — a highly ambiguous word with several different meanings. In the past, whenever I wrote about facts, what these are, how this word is used in different circumstances, I adopted the common convention of using italics, but more recently I adopted the habit of capitalizing the first letter of the word under discussion, as in Fact or its plural form, Facts. I found this to work quite well.

But capitalization has its own problems, as can be seen until recently in German, where there are many rules as well as a great many exceptions to them. It took German children much time and effort to learn to spell correctly — many did not succeed, and often failed school because they were deficient in orthography! Foreigners just got overwhelmed, got lost in the fray and were readily forgiven by natives for their orthographic transgressions. This changed in 1996 when the German government decreed that it was only mandatory for all nouns to be capitalized, as well as personal pronouns as a matter of courtesy. Of course not all previous conventions were set aside, but much became discretionary rather than decreed. The young celebrated, older people more often bewailed what they perceived as a decline in standards. And there the matter rests.

In English – as just demonstrated – matters are not entirely simple either. The personal pronoun, I, is capitalized, but not others. When writing about the queen, write Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth, or about The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Alex Appleby, given that names should be capitalized, as in other languages, but also any titles that go with names! Writing sir or mr. Alex Appleby would be orthographically unacceptable in English. These conventions are easily learned and are not cause for being failed in examinations at school or university, as once was the case.

In English, then, only the name of a person, as in Jon Henry, or Queen Elizabeth, God, the personal pronoun, special names like the Ministry of Transport, companies, compass directions and the names of continents, countries, counties, provinces, cities, hamlets and, of course, the first letter of a new sentence need to be capitalized. English has other orthographic problems made worse by the fact that there is so little relationship between the pronunciation of a word and its spelling. Some writers, like Charles Dickens, simply wrote in imitation of sounded speech – which often makes it awkward to read. Speed-readers beware.

My suggestion here is that when one writes about a word, the word referred to be presented in one of two alternative ways: by capitalization, so that instead of writing that the use of containers should be restricted to containers used to transport bulk, we write that Containers are used to refer to containers employed in bulk transport, not to items like individual pots and vases. Similarly, we write that philosophers use Facts in different ways when this refers to data and not to the confidence someone has in a record of a particular event.

Why not use italics rather than capitalizing? As a matter of fact, this is often done. We then write that philosophers use fact in different ways, including to refer to data but also to the confidence one has in the reliability, or the accuracy of the record made of an event! However, this proposal adds confusion given that we already have conventions for using italics, such as to add emphasis to a word or phrase, that work quite well. Extending their use, therefore, confuses rather than clarifies.

A different way of solving my original problem is to use asterisks to mark the critical word – or more importantly – phrase. Write *fact* when discussing this word as a word, not its meaning. Similarly enclose a whole phrase when the phrase is to be discussed without regard to its specific meaning, as in *on the wrong side of the road*. This phrase has two different meanings, namely, travelling on a road but not on the side prescribed by law. This is its literal meaning. Its other meaning is analogical, namely that one is oppositional, acting contrary to what is generally done. The use of the asterisk helps to discuss the phrase without arguing about its proper use.

Time will tell which of these two options will be adopted. In the meanwhile I may try out which one suits me best. I hope others will follow my suggestions – and that they will let me know.

6 thoughts on “Quotes, Italics, Capitalization and Asterisks

  1. Harry: Now I understand what the asterisks are doing in your more recent post 🙂

    Regarding capitalization in German, what were the pre-1966 conventions like? I only know the more recent convention, where all nouns (as well as the first word of a sentence) are capitalized. (If it’s too complicated to explain here, can you refer me to a webpage or a book that would explain it?)


  2. I am delighted that you have unravelled the asterisk. I should set a better example by using it consistently myself! However I often falter for all the wrong reasons ! Basic rule is to place a word in asterisks when talking about the word, not its meaning!

    Re: German question – I shall seek advice from Hilde who really knows about these conventions.

    Finally, I am writing a series of pieces under the the general rubric of Language Truth and Culture. Some of these entries will be repetitious but hopefully will carry some new insights.


    • Now that I’ve come back to read your reply, I’ve re-read the original post, and I have another question. The first word of your title is “quotes” — but then you never mention quotes as a way of setting these words apart! It would seem the most likely conventional candidate for it, though if you were constantly using, say, “fact,” the page might start looking cluttered.

      Another small thing, because I’m a pedant: Would it be, as you say, “The Lord Mayor of London,” or “the Lord Mayor of London”? (An upper- or a lower-case “t”?) I’d be inclined to go with the latter, myself, but perhaps the upper-case one is a convention of British usage, and one I should know…?

  3. Steve,

    I have thought about the first comment you made on many occasions during these past few months. Yes – putting words like “facts” in quotes on a regular basis would clutter up a page. But when writing about anything – and that anything happens to be a word – I cant see a simple way out. There are clearly occasions when it is prudent to let oneself and the reader know that one is talking about the word as a word and not in its colloquial meaning. I previously proposed using an asterisk – and think it is time to put into practice what I preached. .However, it would not respond to your aesthetic complaint: a clutter is a clutter no matter what.

    I would appreciate your comments whether to institute the *, as originally proposed. One could just use one * and place it at the beginning of a word to signal that one is writing about a word, or us a single quote-sign ? Here are examples: “fact -instead of “fact”, or simply *fact to indicate that we are discussing not a fact, but the meaning or usage of the word

    Over to you – and others !

  4. My reflexive response, Harry, was to say that the single asterisk should go _after_ such a word, rather than before it — and then I realized that I’d then go hunting for a footnote! So that won’t do.

    I suppose the single asterisk at the beginning of the word is as good as anything else — assuming, of course, it were understood (and adopted!) widely enough eventually to become a convention!


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