The Critics’ Corner
Hot Potatoes; Capitalization
by Don Webb
Two veteran contrributors ask or imply interesting questions:
The Order of the Hot Potato
Many thanks for the congratulations. I take your word for it that being author of a ‘hot potato’ is worthy of congratulation; I feel rather ambivalent about it!
Understandably. I’m fond of the “HotPot,” myself. Titles typically appear on the list for different reasons. And the category challenges readers to ask themselves why these dozen or so titles might have qualified. The Order of the Hot Potato is intended as a favor to our contributors; it attracts the readers’ attention to works they might otherwise overlook.
I have a question about capitalization. In “Oatmeal Girl,” should the spelling be “my Mom” and “my Dad” or “my mom” and “my dad”? What is the standard style?
The capitalization problem you mention is a recurrent one. It’s sometimes a judgment call. Inconsistency is hard to avoid, and I’m sure I make mistakes.
As a rule, “Mom” and “Dad” are capitalized when they’re used in direct address or could be replaced by the person’s name. If they’re used as common nouns, they take lower case. I’ll make up some examples:
- “Yes, Mom.” (direct address)
- “I’ll talk to Mom about it.” (“Mom” replaces the person’s name.)
- “I’ll talk to my mom about it.” (common noun)
Similar cases arise with official titles. In Glenn Gray’s “A Day in the Cornfield,” a sheriff is an important character. I’ll make up a couple of examples:
- “Here comes the sheriff,” Karl said.
- “Hi, Sheriff,” said Stew, nervously.
Making up another example, based on Martin Kerharo’s The Dohani War:
- “Don’t worry about Colonel Redgger, Jane. We have a saying: ‘colonels are always wrong’.”
- “Get these quarters shipshape, Zimski,” the colonel ordered.
- “Aye, sir,” Zimski replied, saluting. But Zimski thumbed his nose at the colonel as the officer stomped out the door.
And speaking of “Sir” or “sir,” we frequently receive submissions in which the word is always capitalized. The rule is: use lower-case (“sir”) unless the word begins a sentence or is followed by the person’s name. For example:
“Yes, sir,” said the squire, and he doffed his cap to Sir Galahad.
And the rule is the same for “Yes, ma’am,” although the word would be spelled out if it were used as an honorific.
As one of our mottoes says, “Things would be a lot simpler if they weren’t so complicated.”
Copyright © 2013 by Don Webb