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A Ruling on the Uppercase: It's a Capital Idea

June 03, 1993|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School

In April I presented a review of the grammar and word usage conundrums that my students and readers ask about most often.

To my surprise, that topic brought more reader mail than any other--mostly more questions about other language problems.

First, let's tackle the easiest area: capitalization.

Which words to capitalize in a title, and when describing people, seems especially confusing to readers.

In a title, capitalize the first and last words, and all other words except a, an, the, and unimportant words with fewer than five letters.

An example: I recently read "Like Water for Chocolate," "Murder at the Nightwood Bar," and "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

Some words used to describe people are capitalized too. Capitalize the names of people, as well as ethnic, political, and religious groups, languages, nationalities--and all descriptive words (adjectives) derived from them.

Consider this mouthful as an example: "My father is an Irish-Catholic Democrat who can speak Spanish as well as most Latinos."

A couple of punctuation questions also came up repeatedly, namely how to use the semicolon and colon.

Many people mistakenly use the semicolon in place of the comma, or not at all. (That's a shame; it's one of my favorite writing tools.)

Use the semicolon to separate two related independent clauses (phrases that could each stand alone as a complete sentence), as in "Vicky Thorp is visiting Pittsburgh; she's bringing me peanuts from a Pirates game."

The semicolon may also be used instead of the comma to separate items in a series, if the items already include commas: "My Students of the Month include Shiloh McGuffey, March; Caesar Herrera, April; and Rei Ishigaki, May."

The colon has several uses. The most common is to introduce a list of items, but only after an independent clause. An example is, "I have three allergies: cats, penicillin, and bad poetry."

There were also letters and calls concerning homonyms--words that sound alike but have different meanings.

Sit means to occupy a seat ("Sit by me, please,") while set means to put something in place, much like lay ("Set your books on the table").

Stationary means "in fixed position" ("The sun is stationary; Earth is not"). Stationery, though, is paper for letter-writing ("Scented stationery is sometimes more nauseating than romantic").

A principle is a truth or code of conduct, as in "Stealing violates my principles." But principal means main or primary, a sum of money, or a school's leader.

Bare (meaning naked or exposed) and bear (meaning the animal, or to carry) are often confused. They are obviously different in meaning--although bears are typically bare, and seem to bear no shame about it.

Lie and lay are not homonyms, but they have driven more than their share of writers to insanity.

Lie means to be in position or at rest ("Don't lie too near the fire!").

Lay means to place or put something somewhere ("Lay the groceries on the sideboard").

If that's not confusing enough, here's an additional complication: The past tense of lie is lay ("After shaking off the water, the dog lay in the sun").

Finally, we have a couple of words with forms that are often confused.

Media is often treated as a singular word, although it is plural, and medium is actually the singular. An example: "The newspaper is my favorite medium, but radio and TV are also useful media."

The word alumni is also regularly botched. It is seen on the license plate frames of proud college grads, male and female, all over the Southland. But alumni is actually the plural form of the word alumnus, which denotes a male graduate.

Thus my plate frame is wrong too. It says "UCLA Alumni," although I am an alumna (female singular; the plural is alumnae.) Yes, I've looked for a correct version since graduation day, but it doesn't exist.

The lesson? Don't feel too beaten by our unusually bewildering language. Even esteemed universities can't conquer it completely.

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