Capitalization in Titles & Lists Update (Wikipedia Has Different Standards?)

Hi, friends. In December, I published a post on capitalization in titles and lists. Since then, a conversation with a coworker who plays a semi-significant role in Wikipedia caused me to question everything.

Typical Capitalization Standards

In Capitalization in Titles & Lists, I explained the general standards for titles and lists. For titles, capitalize every important word (almost everything besides articles and prepositional words like “of” and “the”). Examples: 5 Ways to Make Your Blog Easier to Read, Who Else Was Obsessed with Lisa Frank?, I Freaking Love O Brother, Where Art Thou?. For lists, capitalize the first word and lowercase the rest. If a proper noun falls in the list, capitalize it. Here is an example to-do list with a title in it:

  • Mow the lawn
  • Paint the garage door
  • Water the plants
  • Order take-out from Miss Molly’s Diner

Wikipedia Standards

wikipedia

In an attempt to “avoid unnecessary capitalization,” Wikipedia treats titles like lists. In other words, a title that I personally would write as “1950s American Automobile Culture” would instead read “1950s American automobile culture” on Wikipedia (cool article my coworker wrote). I learned that the way I recommend for titles (capitalize every significant word) is called “title case,” whereas the way I recommend for lists (capitalize first word only) is called “sentence case.” Click here for more.

Bottom Line

I like my way and I’m sticking to it! Kidding but also not. Title case used to be the norm, but I found in my research that sentence case is used for titles about as much as title case now. At the end of the day, these rules are arbitrary. As Wikipedia states in the article about their standards, consistency is key. Pick a way to capitalize your content (either first word only or all significant words) and exercise your standard consistently. Inconsistent capitalization damages your ethos (if you want to appear professional).

Thanks for reading!

Tutorial: Lists

Welcome to today’s grammar tutorial. We will discuss a few aspects of the grammar in lists with the most crucial aspect being parallelism. Lists can use every part of speech–nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. After reviewing the basics of lists, we’ll apply those lessons to editing complex sentence structures.

Lists & Word Classes

When you list a series of adjectives, verbs, nouns, etc., ensure that each item in one list is parallel (belongs to the same word class).

Here are some example lists:

Betsy wore blue, red, and green ribbons in her hair. (adjective list)

I drove to Food Lion and bought milk, eggs, and bread. (noun list)

We spent the vacation hiking, swimming, and fishing. (present tense verb list)

On the vacation, we hiked, swam, and fished. (past tense verb list)

The dogs belong to him, her, and me. (pronoun list)

At the sound of his “late” alarm, Max sprang out of bed tiredly, angrily, and anxiously. (adverb list)

Errors in Lists

As you can see, a list can be comprised of items that belong to any word class or part of speech. The problem we examine today relates to mixing up word classes/ parts of speech in a list. Like subject-verb agreement, the preliminary rules seem basic but become essential when editing complex prose. Also, as with subject-verb disagreement, these errors might throw you off while reading even if you couldn’t pinpoint the reason. I’ll rewrite two of the example sentences to have lists that don’t parallel.

I drove to Food Lion, bought eggs, milk, and bread.

We spent the vacation hiking, swimming, and visited some caverns.

The items in the first list are drove to Food Lion, bought eggs, milk, and bread. The first two items are verb phrases, and the second two are nouns. The items must fall under the same word class to be parallel.

The items in the second list are hiking, swimming, and visited some caverns. Though the three listed items are verbs, they aren’t parallel because two are in the present tense, yet one is in the past tense. Because verbs are the most complex word class to list, a more in-depth blog post on the subject is forthcoming.

Errors in Complex Sentences

Now, I’ll apply what we’ve discussed to complex sentence structures. Errors like these occur primarily in sophisticated prose because they are harder to catch and sometimes difficult to reword. Here is an example:

Because I’ve spent three to four hours a week searching hashtags, reading blogs I’ve found, tweeting authors, editors, and following blogs, I’ve gained 100 followers.

Every item in that list aside from editors is a present tense verb, specifically a gerundsearching hashtags, reading blogs, tweeting authors, and following blogs. The simplest way to fix this issue is by adding and editors to the item tweeting authors. Here’s the correct version:

Because I’ve spent three to four hours a week searching hashtags, reading blogs I’ve found, tweeting authors and editors, and following blogs, I’ve gained 100 followers.

Here is another example of a listing error in a complex sentence:

However, his unfiltered commentary, filled with bitterness, burning lust, and resenting his family, constantly reminds the reader of his animal status.

Burning lust and bitterness are nouns, but resenting his family is a verb phrase. Though burning and resenting are both verbs in gerund form, burning describes lust here, whereas the subject of the sentence, he, is taking the action of resenting his family. This example more aptly reflects the awkwardness that comes with rephrasing unparalleled lists sometimes.

Shifting the verb phrase to a noun to match the other items is one way to fix the sentence:  

However, his unfiltered commentary, filled with bitterness, burning lust, and resentment for his family, constantly reminds the reader of his animal status.

Occasionally, you may be forced to change a sentence altogether because the list is so fractured. While that’s not the case with this example, we can still practice rephrasing a sentence with a list. Here’s the statement reworded:

However, he, resenting his family, reminds the reader of his animal status through an unfiltered commentary filled with bitterness and burning lust.

However, he resents his family and reminds the reader of his animal status through an unfiltered commentary of burning lust and bitterness.

However, his unfiltered commentary, filled with bitterness, burning with lust, and revealing his resentment for his family, reminds the reader of his animal status.

One More Thing!

I argued with a coworker yesterday over the accuracy of this sentence:

My blog is not jumbled; rather, it’s clean, symmetrical, and utilizes white space.

The items in the list are clean, symmetrical, and utilizes white space. The first two items are adjectives, and the last is a verb phrase. I would rephrase the sentence as:

My blog is not jumbled; rather, it’s clean, it’s symmetrical, and it utilizes white space.

He claimed that straightforwardness trumps technicality, and since the original sentence was easily deciphered, it need not be changed. I’m clearly the kind of girl who likes her grammar rules and sticks to them. At the end of the day, the discretion is yours; if you write a sentence like the one above and don’t want to change it, don’t. Because this type of error in text can detrimentally affect reader comprehension, I recommend always keeping your lists parallel.

Tutorial: Subject-Verb Agreement

Welcome to another grammar tutorial. Today, we will discuss subject-verb agreement. Subject-verb agreement means making sure the subject (who/what the sentence is about) is properly matched to the verb (action the subject is taking) in a sentence. This lesson is fundamental to English skills, and many English speakers would recognize subject-verb disagreements in conversation, even if they couldn’t identify why the statements sounded wrong. Grasping these fundamental rules becomes essential when editing complex sentence structures.

Subject-Verb Agreement:

The singularity or plurality of a clause’s subject determines how its subject(s) and verb(s) are paired. This sounds confusing, so let’s pick it apart. An “independent clause” is an independent phrase–basically, it’s a sentence. In the first sentence, I used “clause” rather than “sentence” because one sentence may contain both independent clauses and dependent clauses. A “dependent clause” cannot stand alone and begins with conjunctions or relative pronouns, listed hereIn the following sentence, there’s an independent clause and a dependent clause: Aristotle was more scientific, while Plato was more spiritual.Aristotle was” is one subject-verb set, and “Plato was” is the other subject-verb set. The first clause in the example sentence is independent and can stand alone: Aristotle was more scientific. The dependent clause has a subject and verb but can’t stand alone: while Plato was more spiritual. Here’s a link explaining when to use or not use a comma with “while,” a distinction I only learned recently.

With a preliminary discussion about clauses out of the way, we can return to the phrase “singularity or plurality of a clause’s subject.” We now know about clauses, and “singularity” or “plurality” of a subject refers to amount. A singular subject references one person or entity, and a plural subject references multiple people or entities. The subjects from the examples–Aristotle and Plato–were singular, so we used “was” for both clauses. If the subject of the sentence was plural, the verb would change. Example: Aristotle and Plato were rhetoricians. The verb “was” changed to “were.”

Some of this advice appears basic and obvious to a native English speaker, but acknowledging these rules about singularity, plurality, independent clauses, and dependent clauses is key to finding subject-verb agreement errors in complicated sentences, where the mistakes occur most often. When editing your work, you must be able to weed through the parts of a long sentence to identify the subject and verb, assuring that they agree. Here’s an example of subject-verb disagreement in a compound sentence: The organization raises money for charity but take a profit. “Take a profit” is not a dependent clause because it doesn’t contain a subject and a verb, so we must identify the subject for the verb “take.” The organization is the subject of both clauses; it both raises money and takes a profit. Therefore, the accurate version of the sentence reads, “The organization raises money for charity but takes a profit.”

Let’s examine subject-verb disagreement in a complex sentence. Here’s a sentence from an essay of mine: Enthymemes bolster our opinions, or our presentations of “the real facts,” because drawing conclusions from examples, signs, and general observation strengthen the validity of those opinions. Did you catch the mistake? Let’s identify the clauses in this sentence. “Enthymemes bolster our opinions […]” is an independent clause, and the subject-verb pair is “enthymemes bolster.” The other half of the sentence is a dependent clause: “because drawing conclusions from […] strengthen the validity of those opinions.” The subject-verb pair is “drawing strengthen.” “Drawing” is singular (explanation of gerunds), but “strengthen” pairs with plural nouns. The sentence should read, “Enthymemes bolster our opinions, or our presentations of “the real facts,” because drawing conclusions from examples, signs, and general observation strengthens the validity of those opinions.” The plural word “conclusions” next to “drawing” would confuse many people and cause oversight, but if you proofread with a cautious eye for subject-verb disagreement, you can catch these clunky errors.

Tutorial: Commas

Hello again, and welcome to the first in a series of grammar/editing tutorials. If you read my previous posts, you know how much I value editing in producing good writing. I hope this series helps you improve your editing skills and enables you to feel more confident with your finished work. As a first step in working towards that goal, I’ll start the series with the punctuation mark that trips up websites, blog posts, and professional articles–the comma! Below, I’ve written a paragraph from a hypothetical story that includes multiple comma errors, which we will discuss.

Marissa peeped around the corner where the new kitten lapped milk from a small dish. Marissa wished to pet the tiny adorable creature but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding. At only five years old Marissa couldn’t understand why her mother tormented her; she just wanted to hold him, and touch his soft fur. As Marissa and her mother drove home from the pet shelter earlier that day Marissa had gazed at him through the holes of a cardboard box shifting in her lap on the bumpy ride. Marissa’s mother lounging on the couch spoke softly from behind her saying, “You want to see Buttons?” Marissa looked around at her mother with the pout of innocent longing. Chuckling Marissa’s mother crept quietly into the room where Buttons still slurped. She gently grabbed him bringing him to Marissa who grinned eagerly. Marissa reached out to stroke the kitten, he mewed softly. She rubbed his ears, stroked his back and kissed his sweet face.

Comma Splice:

Do not join two stand-alone sentences with a comma. Use a semicolon, connect the clauses with a conjunction, or rewrite the sentences.

Wrong: Marissa reached out to stroke the kitten, he mewed softly.

Right: Marissa reached out to stroke the kitten; he mewed softly.

Lists:

Use commas to separate items in a list, and use one before “and.”

Wrong: She rubbed his ears, stroked his back and kissed his sweet face.

Right: She rubbed his ears, stroked his back, and kissed his sweet face.

Note–the comma before “and” is not always required, especially in journalism.

Adjectives:

Separate two adjectives describing the same noun with a comma.

Wrong: Marissa wished to pet the tiny adorable creature but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding.

Right: Marissa wished to pet the tiny, adorable creature, but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding.

Conjunctions:

When you connect two clauses that can stand alone using a conjunction (and, but, yet, so), use a comma.

Wrong: Marissa wished to pet the tiny adorable creature but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding.

Right: Marissa wished to pet the tiny, adorable creature, but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding.

If one of the phrases connected with a conjunction can’t stand alone, don’t use a comma.

Wrong: She just wanted to hold him, and touch his soft fur.

Right: She just wanted to hold him and touch his soft fur.

Phrases:

If a phrase in a sentence couldn’t stand alone, offset it with commas.

Wrong: At only five years old Marissa couldn’t understand why her mother tormented her.

Right: At only five years old, Marissa couldn’t understand why her mother tormented her.

Wrong: Chuckling Marissa’s mother crept quietly into the room where Buttons still slurped.

Right: Chuckling, Marissa’s mother crept quietly into the room where Buttons still slurped.

Relative Pronouns:

If a phrase begins with a relative pronoun (where, who, which, etc.), and the phrase can be omitted from the sentence without changing the meaning of it, offset it with commas. This can get confusing, so here’s a helpful resource.

Wrong: She gently grabbed him bringing him to Marissa who grinned eagerly.

Right: She gently grabbed him, bringing him to Marissa, who grinned eagerly.

Commas serve as the natural pauses we use as we speak or as we read something aloud. Sometimes, this rule is not foolproof; for example, in a long sentence, you might pause before saying “because,” yet you never put a comma before that word. However, for the most part, thinking of commas this way clarifies their purpose and usage.

The rules for commas I’ve laid out here don’t probe the entire subject, but for pragmatic reasons, I’ve provided the most common errors and their simple solutions. I will likely follow this entry in the future with part 2, but these are the basics. Here is the paragraph with every proper adjustment made:

Marissa peeped around the corner where the new kitten lapped milk from a small dish. Marissa wished to pet the tiny, adorable creature, but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding. At only five years old, Marissa couldn’t understand why her mother tormented her; she just wanted to hold him and touch his soft fur. As Marissa and her mother drove home from the pet shelter earlier that day, Marissa had gazed at him through the holes of a cardboard box, shifting in her lap on the bumpy ride. Marissa’s mother, lounging on the couch, spoke softly from behind her, saying, “You want to see Buttons?” Marissa looked around at her mother with the pout of innocent longing. Chuckling, Marissa’s mother crept quietly into the room where Buttons still slurped. She gently grabbed him, bringing him to Marissa, who grinned eagerly. Marissa reached out to stroke the kitten; he mewed softly. She rubbed his ears, stroked his back, and kissed his sweet face.

Reading the paragraph with the adjustments illuminates some repetitiveness in sentence structure, as the commas somewhat overload the text. In this light, you might think of perfect writing and editing skills as a pyramid. Building a pyramid requires a strong foundation. When you have a strong foundation of grammatical knowledge–such as understanding where commas should and shouldn’t be–you can edit your work for aesthetics.

Stay tuned for the next one!