Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Know, Respect, Break the Rules Part Two: CS Lewis & Capitalization

Remember, back in the distant past, the series on writing I said I was starting? The long-awaited part two is here! A quick review: Understanding grammar opens the door for you in your writing to break the rules because you understand language as organic. You understand the reason why grammatical and linguistic structures exist; you understand their purposes. This understanding lends itself to creative writing that cannot be contained by the face value of the rules, but is rather empowered by their exponential value---like the Law and the spirit of the Law.

The writers who taught me the exponential value of capitalization: CS Lewis and e. e. cummings. You know the rules of capitalization (unless you've been corrupted by text-speak---insert soapbox here): the beginning of sentences, and quoted sentences, and proper nouns. Lewis and Cummings allow the capital letter to go deeper in its responsibility in communicating to the reader.

Cummings's contribution is rather obvious. when he
capitalizes a word, you Notice. those

(I should probably do a whole post on Cummings's unconventional structuring.)

Lewis capitalizes words that aren't usually capitalized as well, and I think, for the same reason: because they're significant... and not for the same reason (generally): because they're Significant. For Lewis, capitalization often serves as a signpost of spiritual realities. He uses it to name a reality. Note these examples from The Screwtape Letters (which isn't the only book where Lewis shows this pattern, but the book I happen to have most handy).
  • "We of course see the connecting link, which is Hatred."
  • "This has largely been effected by concentration all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess."
  • "He claims to be three as well as one, in order that this nonsense about Love may find a foothold in His own nature."

As I mentioned in part one, reading good literature is a good way to learn about writing, and just as we naturally pick up the quirks and witticisms of our friends, we just as easily absorb and imitate the patterns and nuances of what we read---some of us more fluidly than others. I am one of those some. I absorb and imitate like a chameleon, and I'll admit, I usually get a bit overzealous unawares---like an infatuated crush---but I eventually notice the saturation of a new trick in my work, calm down a bit, and maintain my own style. I did this when I noticed I had begun to Capitalize Everything after my CS Lewis class.

I did the same saturating and cutting back after reading lots of L'Engle and falling in love with her semicolon (and her). Stay tuned for part three and find out more about my love affair with the semicolon.


Philip Irving Mitchell said...

I'm not sure how it fits in, but what do we do with the lack of standardization in capitals before the late 18th-century? If you read editions of pre-19th century texts that preserve the spelling and capitalization, they are remarkable random as to what they capitalize and why.

renea mac said...

That's a good point! I've never seen anything firsthand that wasn't standardized by editors. I think it would be fascinating to see a text side-by-side. It begs the question, WHY!? What a bizarre thing to do, capitalize at random.

So there's meaning (potentially) in unconventional capitalization only because there's convention in the first place. I think that suits my theme splendidly.

Anonymous said...

i confess i've fallen prey to text speak...even me...how bout that? love, mom