Capital Gain

The President has regained the capital.

STOP: I am neither making any prediction nor promoting any candidate for election. House rules on this column declare: “Leave your politics at the door.” An 1879 street sign from Dodge City read, “The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.” Politics is more dangerous than firearms. It’s a weapon of mass deception. I’m interested in the language we use to discuss the news of the day. And the news I’m discussing calls for a hail to the chiefs at Hamodia.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. So pull up a chair and let me take you back to when William Safire threw a right uppercut to the lowercase at The New York Times.

“On Nov. 1, 1999, the president of the United States lost his capital. This is not about the burning of the Executive Mansion by the British on Aug. 24, 1814, just after James Madison took flight from the nation’s capital and his wife, Dolley, cut the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington out of its frame and took it with her for safekeeping.”

Safire was referring to what he called the “Triumph of the Lowercase” made official in The New York Times’ new 1999 style manual, where “the capital letter is decisively taken down.”

It’s worth noting that the manual, whose immodest title takes up most of the cover, is called: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: The Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the World’s Most Authoritative News Organization.

More on that later, but the manual’s listing for president says:

president. It is President Lamm (without a given name) in a first reference to the current president of the United States.”

(Sorry for interrupting, but stop again. Is this an inside joke from some Yeshiva University alumnus referencing the school’s late President Norman Lamm? I don’t remember his having been elected President of the United States. Could it be a typo about some president on the lam?)

The manual continued its authoritative guidance:

“In later references: President Lamm; the president; Mr. (or Ms., Miss or Mrs.) Lamm. In first references to presidents of other countries, use given names and ordinarily middle initials. For other presidents — of companies, associations, clubs, universities and organizations — lowercase the title and separate it from the name (before or after) with a comma.”

Safire pointed a finger (or was that a fist?) at the manual’s usage of a lowercase p in “the current president of the United States.” He said, “Note: not ‘the current President,’ with a capital P. From now on, even when referring to the specific person holding the highest office in the nation, Times style is to lowercase the p.”

He then took a swing at the AP Stylebook’s lowercase usage, which currently reads: “Capitalize president only as a formal title before one or more names: President Donald Trump, former Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. Lowercase in all other uses.”

Safire’s preferred style, he lamented, is “no longer stylish.” But he found some consolation in G-d still being capitalized. “The faithful will be happy to see that the Supreme Being retains His capital.”

Then Safire explained the difference between a style manual and a grammar textbook or dictionary:

“Style is not a set of rules; it is a group of conventions to reflect an attitude and set a tone. ‘In approaching the mechanics of usage and grammar,’ write [the manual’s editors], ‘this manual reflects The Times’s impression of its educated and sophisticated readership — traditional but not tradition-bound. … Throughout, the goal is a fluid style, easygoing but not slangy and only occasionally colloquial.”

I have to confess, as a copyeditor, I can get obsessive about minutiae. I notice things like curly quotation marks or apostrophes facing the wrong direction and, Heaven help me, an en dash where there should be an em dash. (If you don’t know what that means, consider yourself lucky.)

But I also remember that writers at the New Yorker were driven to distraction by founding editor Harold Ross’ fixation on the mechanics as much as the content of writing.

James Thurber wrote about what he called “the unending fuss and fret about commas. The New Yorker’s overuse of commas, originating in Ross’s clarification complex, has become notorious the world over among literary people. In Paris, in 1955, an English journalist said to me one night, ‘The biography of Ross should be called The Century of the Comma Man.’”

John McNulty said, “Ross has two gods, Upper Case and lower case.”

But there’s more than mechanics involved here. There’s a deeper reason I celebrate a recent internal memo at Hamodia to restore the crowning capital to Kings, Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers.

Ironically, The Times style manual’s editors called The Times the “World’s Most Authoritative News Organization.”

Why is that ironic? Social scientists speak about “the demystification of authority.” In tone and content, The Times is at the vanguard of that demystification. Part of the price we pay for the blessing of living in a democracy is a loss of the sense of nobility.

I’m as egalitarian as the next guy. But if everything equals everything else, then nothing is better than anything else. And that couldn’t be worse.


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.