Writer’s Toolbox – I’m Talkin’ to You, Part III

Over the past two columns (part 1 and part 2) we’ve covered nouns of direct address, their uses, and how to apply appropriate punctuation. But when using these nouns there’s another factor that many writers don’t even realize exists: proper capitalization. Mystified? Read on!

All in the Family
Is it “Mom” or “mom”? “Grandma” or “grandma”? Whether to capitalize family names can stump even the most experienced writer. And while the whole gamut of rules and exceptions is outside the scope of this article series, here’s one relevant tip: Capitalize family names when they’re used as nouns of direct address.

Example A: “I want to go to the store, Mom.” Here, “Mom” is capitalized because the speaker is directly addressing his/her mom.

Remember, though, that the opposite of the rule doesn’t apply; just because a family name isn’t being used as a noun of direct address doesn’t mean it isn’t capitalized.

Example B: “I went to the store with my mom.”

Example C: “I went to the store with Mom.”

Neither example involves direct address, but one is capitalized and the other isn’t. We’ll deal with these in a later column, but for now, remember that the direct address/capitalization rule only works one way.

Incorrect Example D: “Will you teach me how to ride a bike, uncle?” This is incorrect; “uncle” is used as a noun of direct address, so it should be capitalized.

Corrected Example D: “Will you teach me how to ride a bike, Uncle?”

A Name in Passing
It may have been common years ago, but terms of endearment or familiarity?words like “honey” or “friend”?are now generally no longer capitalized, even in direct address. While the Chicago Manual of Style’s most recent edition has dropped this lowercasing from its list of rules, its editors note it as a preference (and very, very few editors will recommend uppercasing terms of endearment).

Example E: “I love you so much, honey.”

The same applies to not-so-pleasant terms of address:

Example F: “Get away from me, jerk!”

A Matter of Respect
The capitalization question becomes trickier when it applies to titles. When official political, civil, military, and religious titles?words like “senator,” “bishop,” and “general”?are used in direct address, they’re capitalized, even if otherwise they wouldn’t be. Contrast these two pairs of examples:

Example G: “The captain told us to abandon ship.”

Example H: “Must we abandon ship, Captain?”

Example I: “I am asking the mayor whether he will be improving the park’s security.”

Example J: “What I am asking, Mayor, is whether you will be improving the park’s security.”

And that’s a wrap on direct address! In next Friday’s column we’ll change focus from the minutiae of commas and capitalization to something that’s the foundation of all good writing. Intrigued? Come back next week.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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