Grammar lessons from a train ride

el-signI was riding home on the “L” after a long day at work, staring off into space instead of at my phone like usual, when this sign next to the exit doors caught my attention.

For those of you who don’t know Chicago, the “L” is what we call our subway system. Sometimes spelled “el,” the name is short for “elevated train” after what it looked like when it was first built in 1892. The “L” is the second oldest and third busiest transit system in the US. (I couldn’t help but give you some trivia to make you sound smart at cocktail parties. It is the holiday season.)

But back to the sign. As I studied it, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the logic behind which words were capitalized and which were left lowercase. I kept trying to find some sort of pattern. When I couldn’t find one, a phrase commonly uttered by my 4-year-old son came to mind, What the heck? 

Let’s start out by noting that from a grammar perspective, none of the words on this sign should be capitalized besides the first word of each sentence. Not to mention the fact that the fifth instruction “Danger, High Voltage at Track Level,” isn’t even a sentence, which makes the list lack parallelism, another indication of poor writing.

For those of you who may remember my post on bullet points, parallelism requires that if the first item in your list starts with a verb, all items should start with verbs. If the first item starts with a noun, all items should start with nouns. If the first item is a phrase, all items should be phrases. If the first item is a sentence, all items should be sentences. You get the picture. It means being consistent so that a list is easy to read.

As long as we’re here, let’s set aside the capitalization issue for a minute and address the lack of parallelism in the CTA sign. We’ll start by identifying where the verbs are to determine whether they are used consistently. I’ve bolded them below.

In case of an emergency:

  1. Follow Instructions.
  2. Remain on Train.
  3. Do not Open Doors.
  4. Move to Another Car.
  5. If in Danger, help others.
  6. Exit as Instructed.
  7. Danger, High Voltage at Track Level.

As you can see, items 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 are parallel because they all start with verbs. But number 5 doesn’t even make sense. “If in Danger, help others”? How can you help others when you’re in danger? Doesn’t the airline industry tell us to put on our own oxygen masks first? I think the Chicago Transit Authority really means, “Help others in danger.” Now the instruction is clear and parallel because it starts with a verb like the others.

Now what about number 7? It’s a fragment, not a sentence, and it doesn’t even have a verb. So it lacks parallelism in two ways. The good news is both issues can be easily fixed by starting that phrase with a verb, which will turn it into a sentence. Something like, “Beware of high-voltage tracks” or “Avoid electrocution, you idiot.”

So now our sign reads:

In case of an emergency:

  1. Follow Instructions.
  2. Remain on Train.
  3. Do not Open Doors. 
  4. Move to Another Car.
  5. Help others in Danger.
  6. Exit as Instructed.
  7. Beware of High-Voltage Tracks.

See how much easier it is to read?

Now that we’ve fixed the CTA’s parallelism problem (free of charge, I might add), let’s revisit the capitalization issue. As I said before, none of these words should be capitalized except the first word of each sentence, but let’s try and see what failed logic the writer could have been following. Here’s the original sign wording again. I’ve bolded the words that the CTA capitalized.

  1. Follow Instructions.
  2. Remain on Train.
  3. Do not Open Doors.
  4. Move to Another Car.
  5. If in Danger, help others.
  6. Exit as Instructed.
  7. Danger, High Voltage at Track Level.

Most people know not to capitalize prepositions and conjunctions of three letters or fewer, such as “on,” “to,” “in,” “as” and “of” in book and other publication titles. I’d like to give the CTA the benefit of the doubt and assume they were just mistakenly applying that rule to their list, even though no book titles were involved. At least then they were following a rule. But I suspect that’s not actually what’s happening here.

My guess? They’re using capitalization for emphasis. Many people make the mistake of capitalizing common nouns and verbs to give them greater emphasis. But then why not also capitalize words like “help” or “others”? Those also seem like important words to highlight. I mean, if you’re going to be grammatically incorrect, at least be consistent about it.

This is why I found this sign puzzling. And it does raise a larger question: Why is too much capitalization a problem?

I’m so glad you asked.

In short, it’s distracting. Using anything in excess, including bold, italics, underlining, dashes and different colored fonts can overwhelm your reader and detract from your message. I explain this point further in my entry about capitalization in the new-and-improved A-Z Style Guide now available on BakerWorld. (Yes, it’s finally done and ready for mass consumption!)

Here’s that entry:

capitalization
Avoid overcapitalization. Capital letters slow readers down, and having too many capitalized words detracts from the words that are truly important. Save capital letters for proper nouns and professional titles before a person’s name. Apply these standards:

  • Capitalize the proper names of organizations, political parties, treaties, acts and laws. Use lowercase when referring to them in shorthand form later.

Examples:
“Labour Party” and later “the party”
“International Monetary Fund” and later “the fund”
“the CAN-SPAM Act” and later “the act”

  • Capitalize the proper names of governmental agencies, departments and offices, but use lowercase to refer to governments in general.

Examples:
The Russian Federation, the Chicago City Council, the British Parliament
the federal government, the city council, the parliament

This rule is simple, yet very hard for our Firm to follow. We like to capitalize common nouns for the same reason I suspect the CTA was capitalizing random words, although we are more consistent about it.

Like I speculated in my post on whether we should continue to capitalize “Firm,” I think we overcapitalize because it’s common practice to capitalize common nouns in legal documents such as contracts and letters of engagement to emphasize them.

When you’re trained in law school to write sentences like, “This contract is between Smith, Evans and Jones (hereafter referred to as ‘the Firm’) and ABC Company Inc. (hereafter known as ‘Company’)” it’s only natural to start capitalizing common nouns in non-legal documents, even if it is grammatically incorrect. Then anyone who works with lawyers starts doing it, too.

But I’m here to advocate for the little guy: lowercase. Someone has to. For example, I often see confusion about when to capitalize the names of practice and industry groups.

Here’s the rule: Only capitalize these terms when they are part of proper names, such as the official names of our practice or industry groups. When you are referring to them in general, use lowercase. Here are some examples:

Correct: The Global Tax Practice is ranked Band 1 by Chambers Global.
Incorrect: Our Tax Practice is ranked Band 1 by Chambers Global.

“Tax Practice” in the second sentence should be lowercase because it’s not the official name of the group.

Correct: Our tax practice is ranked Band 1 by Chambers Global.

The same rule applies to subpractice groups.

Correct: The Global Transfer Pricing Subpractice Group will host a seminar in May.
Incorrect: Our Transfer Pricing Subpractice will host a seminar in May.

In the second sentence, “transfer pricing subpractice” should be lowercase. The same goes for phrases like “our employment team” and “our corporate compliance lawyers” (not “our Employment Team” or “our Corporate Compliance lawyers”).

Using lowercase to refer to your employment team or corporate compliance lawyers does not make them any less important. It just means you are properly following grammar rules that dictate not capitalizing common nouns when used in a general sense, but only when they are part of an official name or title.

Now that we’ve dipped our toe in the proper capitalization pool, here’s the big one: professional titles. Oh, how we love to capitalize them even when we shouldn’t.

Here’s the rule from, you guessed it, the A-Z Guide:

professional titles
Do not capitalize professional titles unless they immediately precede the name of the person who holds the position. This includes titles such as “chair,” “partner,” “general counsel” and “associate” in our press releases, proposals and other communications.

Correct: Paul Rawlinson is chair of the Firm’s Executive Committee.
Incorrect: Paul Rawlinson is Chair of the Firm’s Executive Committee.

Correct: The Executive Committee is led by Chair Paul Rawlinson.
Incorrect: The Executive Committee is led by chair Paul Rawlinson.

Correct: The client was advised by Jaime Trujillo, a partner in our Bogota office.
Incorrect: The client was advised by Jaime Trujillo, a Partner in our Bogota office.

Correct: We contacted the general counsel to discuss the case.
Incorrect: We contacted the General Counsel to discuss the case.

This rule was part of our Firm’s stylebook long before I started working here seven years ago, and yet it’s very, very hard for us to follow. Somehow I guess it feels like we’re not paying someone proper respect if we’re not capitalizing her or his title in all references.

But here’s something to make you feel better: Even “the pope” isn’t capitalized. Neither is “the president” or “prime minister” unless those titles directly precede their names. This is what it looks like when written correctly:

Today Prime Minister Theresa May met with EU officials. During that meeting, the prime minister reaffirmed her intentions to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of March.

Throughout his public life, Pope Francis has been noted for his humility. Born in Buenos Aires, the pope is the first from South America.

Crazy, right? It may feel unnatural at first, but I promise it will get easier. Just think of that CTA sign and how important it is not to distract your readers, particularly when they’re trying to avoid electrocution during an emergency evacuation.

For more capitalization rules, see the “academic titles,” “capabilities/services,” “headings/headlines” and “publication titles” entries in the A-Z Style Guide.  Also see the guide’s “Common capitalization errors” list on page 37. Happy holidays!

One thought on “Grammar lessons from a train ride

  1. Anu Singh December 22, 2016 / 2:50 am

    Love your posts, Laurie, but you got one thing wrong. Lawyers don’t capitalize words to emphasize them; we do it to define a term. So that every time that term is used thereafter in that legal document, it is clear to whom or what it is referring.

    In short, a capitalized term in any legal document has a defined meaning. “Company” means a particular company that has been already named and defined as such, not any old company. Hence the to-do about the Firm. When we use it, we mean only one law firm – Baker McKenzie. Etcetera etcetera.

    Using lowercase for what is or should be a defined term is poor legal drafting, by the way. What works really well for normal English usage is not always correct for legal documents.

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