pH and e e cummings

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Dec 14 20:04:39 UTC 2006

On Dec 14, 2006, at 7:50 AM, James Smith wrote:

> Although there are obvious and simple ways to avoid
> this, if pH, e e cummings, or another similar word or
> phrase is at the beginning of a sentence, is the
> initial letter capitalized?

and then Beverly Flanigan asked:

BTW, would you all capitalize "r-lessness" at the beginning of a
sentence??  With phonemic slashes, maybe, but how about if spelled
out, as
I've done?

Ah, a topic dear to my heart: faithfulness (preserving the details of
quoted material and names) vs. well-formedness (making the cited
material conform to some system).  I posted on Language Log about
this early this year: -- "Dubious quotation marks":
and mentioned one further case in passing in my recent "Save that

(Note that "well-formedness" here does not refer to some absolute
sense of correctness, but only to conformity to some system -- a
variety of language, a style sheet, whatever.)

In the earlier posting I looked at some cases where points of
mechanical style were at issue: order of quotation marks and periods/
commas, double vs. single quotes, lowercasing vs. initial
capitalization, indications of emphasis.  Here, well-formedness
generally trumps faithfulness; original schemes for such things are
generally converted to the quoter's home scheme.

I also alluded to earlier postings on the citing of taboo material.
Here, some people go for faithfulness, reproducing original taboo
stuff exactly, while others go for well-formedness, excising or
disguising the taboo stuff.  People differ as to how powerful the
conventions of modesty are for them, and on what occasions.

Finally, I looked at spelling differences, in particular the British
spelling "Labour" vs. the American spelling "Labor", with special
reference to the British political party.  Here, (local) well-
formedness generally seems to win: Americans re-spell "Labour" as
"Labor", and British publications generally re-spell "Labor" as
"Labour".  The details are very complex, though, much more so than I
let on in that posting.

The more recent posting looked at the serial comma.  As far as I can
tell, the use of the serial comma for coordination generally conforms
to the quoter's preferred scheme, whether this is anti-serial, with
no serial comma (the majority style), or serial (which is my own):
anti-serialists quoting people generally remove the commas, while
serialists put them in.  This is well-formedness.  A notable
exception to this is in titles, which are often quoted faithfully.
The New York Times, which is relentlessly anti-serial, nevertheless
preserves the commas in titles (of books, in particular).

Now to initial capitalization.  There are (at least) three
conventions at issue:

(1)  The first non-quote character of a sentence must be a
capitalized letter.

(2)  As a consequence, the first non-quote character cannot be
anything other than a letter.

(3)  Personal names have capitalization on all their parts.

Expressions like "pH" and "iPod" present immediate challenges to
(1).  Unfaithful spellings like "PH" and "IPod" are unacceptable to
many -- probably most -- people.  The question is the status of
faithful spellings.  Some style manuals (I'm away from my collection
of these, so can't give quotes) are resolute about (1); faithful
spellings are unacceptable, and so such expressions must be avoided
as the first words of sentences  (you can, however, write "A pH..."
or "The iPod...").  This is a stalemate between faithfulness and well-
formedness.  Things like
   r-lessness is widespread in the U.K.
have to be replaced by
   R-lessness is widespread in the U.K. [well-formedness]
   The phenomenon of r-lessness is widespread in the U.K.

Spellings in which faithfulness rules are, however, pretty common for
such expressions:

iPod is a brand of portable media players designed and marketed by
Apple Computer and launched in 2001.

iPodLinux is currently safe to install on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd
generation iPods.

If you take (1) to be an inviolable constraint, then you're committed
to (2) as well, and you can't write things like the following:
   4,357 complaints were filed in 2005.
   /r/-lessness is widespread in the U.S.
   (1) is ungrammatical.
Instead, you have to avoid the offending initial character in one way
or another:
   Four thousand three hundred fifty-seven complaints...
   The phenomenon of /r/-lessness...
   Example (1) is ungrammatical.

But not everyone treats (1) as inviolable, or at least as inviolable
in all circumstances.  Some writers have no problem with some or all
of the examples that violate (2).

On to personal names, like "e. e. cummings".  For these, (1) and (3)
are both in play, and there are four resolutions of the conflicts
between them and faithfulness.  Since I happen to have collected some
cites for "bell hooks", I'll use her name (rather than cummings's) to
illustrate the cases.

1.  (1) and (3) are both inviolable.  We get things like the following:

Bell Hooks, who spells her name without capitals, is arguably the
most widely published black feminist scholar ever.

plus sentence-internal occurrences of "Bell Hooks".

2.  Faithfulness wins over both (1) and (3).  We get things like the

bell hooks (born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952) is an
American intellectual, feminist, and social activist. hooks focuses
on the interconnectivity of race, class, and gender and their ability
to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and domination.

plus sentence-internal occurrences of "bell hooks".

(Note the spelling in the url.)

Faithfulness wins over (3) but not (1), which is  inviolable.  There
are two solutions:

3.  (1) wins over faithfulness: "Bell hooks" initially (as in the
wiki page title below, and in most, but not all of the rest of the
page), but "bell hooks" internally (as in the rest of this wiki page).

Bell hooks

4.  The conflict between (1) and faithfulness is a stalemate: no
sentence can begin with the woman's name, though "bell hooks" is fine
internally. (This solution is not something you can search for.)

I have no idea what the relative frequencies of these solutions are.

Enough for today, though I have *a lot* more to say about
faithfulness vs. well-formedness.


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list