Friday, June 5, 2009

Writerly question of the day: when do you capitalize god/God?

When the word God/god is in the middle of a sentence, do you capitalize it?  I see it both ways, and I never know. Is it correct to say  Oh my God! or Oh my god!  ?   Which is more respectful? Which is considered state-of-the-art in current English? What is the linguistic trend - toward or away? Which is more squiriferous?

Or, what about well, goddamn! or, Goddamnit!  or Goddammit!  If you look at in in, the initial capital is sometimes used, sometimes not. Both are correct. In a word like that, is more or less respectful to capitalize it?  What is the thinking on either side? I swear, I see it both ways in published books!
I mean, I know the rule of thumb is if it is a proper name, you capitalize. But when you're saying Oh my God! or Oh my god!, is it even a proper name at that point? 

Then you also have the confusion of God being a proper name, as in, for example, the Christian god, but also, a regular noun, such as in the sentence: Carolyn Crane's husband is such a god!  Or even in the phrase Oh my God! or Oh my god!  are you really talking about a specific god with the proper name of God, e.g. the Christian god, or gods in general, as a concept?

Hey writerly & readerly friends: Do you capitalize or not, and what is your thinking behind it? Please advise!

Image: Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God, from wiki commons


azteclady said...

Oh what an interesting question!

Personally, I only capitalize it when referring specifically to the Christian God--because in that instance I would consider it a proper name. Otherwise, I use lowercase.

RfP said...

That would depend on whether you (or your character) have a god. That is to say, a specific god/proper name would require capitalization. A plea to any ol' god who's available to take the call doesn't require caps. It's like "several centuries" versus "the 20th Century". So:

"Oh my God" = Hello, deity that I believe in despite all the counterfactuals; are you going to come through for me or what?

"god damn it" = Please, somebody, anybody, hurl a lightning bolt at this piece of crap.

Lori said...

I asked my hubby this question since he's a teacher, and his answer was, "Just call me Bob."

Carolyn Crane (aka Carolyn Jean) said...

Aztec: Thanks! interesting. That is a very specific rule, and I'm starting to think a lot of people follow it.

RfP: I like your thinking on resorting to character for the answer. Always a good policy in fiction. However, there may be a difference between what I believe and a character believes, or what various characters believe. What if I have one pious character and one not? Do I cap differently? PS you are funny.

Lori: Your husband is funny, and a god!

meljean brook said...

I do the same as RfP -- if they believe in God, it's capitalized. If they don't, it's lower-case.

Penguin's copy editors like to capitalize God, so Savi drove them nuts :-D

I did capitalize her 'god' (Oh my god) differently than Colin's 'God' (Good God) in the same book.

Lea said...

Great question Carolyn Jean:

Like Azteclady, I only capitalize it when refering to the Christian God out of respect.

Otherwise I use lower case. i.e. The cover 'gods' are looking out for this author.


Anne D said...

House rules usually come in to play...

Carolyn Crane (aka CJ) said...

MJ: That is really interesting to know! So you really did resort to character. I am so impressed.

Lea: But what would you do for Oh my god/God? Do you see that as referring to the Christian god? That's where I get hung up.

AnneD: thanks for the visit, and I had no idea different houses had different styles like that!

Anonymous said...


I've asked myself that many times while writing, actually.

Personally, since I view it as a name I always capitalize the word God. Am I right? Who knows, lol.

Lea said...

Well, come to think of it when I'm trying to make a point as in the acronym OMG!!! I do write Oh My God! However it is to emphasize something important or exciting.

In that case, I've never associated it with the Christian "God", which is somewhat of an oxymoron I guess... lol

Now you've got me pondering CJ. :P

Lea said...

By the way, I like Lori's husband's answer.... lol

azteclady said...

On the "Oh, my God!" thing...

I think in that case it almost always refers to the Christian God. I mean, didn't Romans use "By Jove!" instead?

And I really like the idea of capitalizing or not depending on the character's beliefs...

(warning: tangent ahead)

... which is why I get completely thrown off a story when oh, say, an immortal being created by say, a Roman god? starts using things like "Christ!" as expletives. It completely and absolutely undermines the characterization, making this being sound like a late twenty century punk.


Not that I have any strong opinions on this or anything.

lisabea said...

I loved that Meljean! Now I want to go back and read it again.

writtenwyrdd said...

Capitalizing the word "god" is the same as capitalizing most titles, really. I generally don't bother doing so, though (and I do it knowingly.)

Per Merriam-Webster's "Manual for Writers & Editors," "words designating the supreme being are capitalized. Pural forms such as gods, goddesses and dieties are not." (Note that supreme being is not capitalized as it doesn't refer to a specific god, I presume.)

So, if you are naming a god, it's capitalized; however, when it's a case of mentioning a generic god or gods, it isn't capitalized. When taking the Lord's name in vain, god should be capitalized, despite what others have said, because you are referring to a specific god in that case. (However in my fantasy writing I figure out if it's a generic curse or a specific one and apply my decision for style consistently throughout the work.)

Nicola O. said...

Since I don't write fiction, I don't have to worry about any one else's POV, I usually do not capitalize.

Carolyn Crane (aka CJ) said...

Barbara: Right! I guess I just go back and forth.

Lea: Just call this nerdy writerly hour.

Az: On Christ: Unless that immortal lives in the 20th century, then he could've picked it up as slang. By Jove a Roman saying? I always think of it as British. Are you being funny again? Or am I being ignorant?

LB: yes, it added something, didn't it? To know that.

WW: so in a way, figuring out whether it is generic or specific curse means it goes back to character beliefs? Or actually, more intent, huh? But that is a good point because, even if a character doesn't believe in, say, God, the Christian god, that character could still be taking the Lord's name in vain, in which case it would be capitalized nonetheless. Therefore, it is not the belief of the character but the intent of the phrase. Hmmm.

Nicola: That simplifies things. So, when you say Oh my god, you are thinking generic. According to above.

azteclady said...

by Jove: actually, I have no clue :sheepish:

But my point is, when one curses, doesn't one usually use expression that are meaningful to oneself?

[what a horrible construction there]

Okay, if I'm cursing, I'm not going to use Zeus or what have you--I was brought up Catholic, so for my cursing to have meaning for *me* I would use the Christian God.

Which is why having an immortal being using Christian curses throws me.

Do I make any sense whatsoever?

meljean brook said...

I do think that intent matters. Like, I'll have characters that believe in God say "goddammit" or "goddamn" just as an expletive (I've had to STET a few of those in copy edits, too, because house style is to have a God damn (which looks dumb to me, anyway) but it's worth it to get the intent in there through capitalization (or a lack of it.))

But those same characters might use "God damn him" if they really do mean, "I hope God damns him to Hell."

I let a few of Savi's Gods go house style in DEMON ANGEL, partially because I didn't know that I could STET it. But also, by the time her book rolled around, I'd realized how very important (especially given my worldbuilding) the capitalization could be, and how a term like God is used. There needs to be a difference between when it means something, and when it's just an expression someone uses. So every one of her 'god' uses since then have been lowercase.

Carolyn Crane (aka CJ) said...

Az: Somebody here must know if Jove is short for something. Too bad I'm currently too lazy to look at Wikipedia. Also, well, I think an Atheist could use the expression oh my God. So why not an immortal? Do people curse in a "when in Rome way?" I've never observed. On a related note, Kresley Cole does 'Oh my gods,' doesn't she? I think. As usual, you bring up very many interesting points.

MJ: I'm very glad to arrive at this intent issue. It makes total sense, and I like how it goes to character and scenario instead of dictionary. And I must thank you for delivering this STET bit, which I was not aware of.

JenB said...

Jove (aka Jupiter) was the king of the Roman gods.

Here's my rule for God/god: it's a matter of specificity. Are you talking about gods in general, or are you talking about *the* God from your Sunday School days?

a whole bunch of gods...
the god of war...
they pray to their gods...
Oh, God, I hope he's okay.
Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret.

"Oh, my God" should probably be capitalized because you're still talking about the one specific God ("Oh, my nonspecific deity" doesn't quite work), but you can't actually call it "respectful" either way 'cause you're still breaking the third commandment. >_<

Just think of it like Dad or Mom. You say "Hey, Dad!" when you're talking to him, "Dad would never approve" when you're talking about him specifically. But you'd say "My dad works for..." "Have you asked your dad?", etc.

Carolyn Crane (aka CJ) said...

Jen, Okay, thanks for the Jove clarification!

On the g/G, the question isn't the noun/proper noun differentiation, but yes, I was wondering more specifically about gray areas like Oh my god/God. Or, goddammit. The dictionary has it optional. So, to understand, it's your contention that anytime somebody says 'oh my God,' or Goddammit, it would be capped because it originated as a Judeo-Christian curse, and the intent of the person can't change it?

That is an interesting new twist!

azteclady said...

Here's my s.o.'s opinion:

If you say the "concept" of a god, lower case. But if you say, "this is something that God did" --specific entity, almost a title.

In other cases, like goddammit--depends on the strength of the invective. Throwaway insult: goddammit! But from a very religious person, it should be Goddammit--i.e., "I hit my finger with the hammer, goddammit!" vs "I hope that s.o.b. burns in Hell for ever, God damn him!"

Also, countries with a Judeo Christian tradition, would tend to lower case god when referring to 'pagan' gods.

[Forgive incoherency, I'm taking dictation here]

Katiebabs a.k.a KB said...

You may capitalize my name CJ. I am perfectly fine with it.

Mary-Laure said...

When in doubt, I capitalize...

Nicola O. said...

CJ, just speaking for myself, yep. I rarely actually say "oh my god" out loud, but when I do, it's not actually a prayer, an imprecation, or an invocation, it's just an exclamation, not particularly more meaningful than "Oh!"

I've been known to use "Jesus Christ!" as a more, hmmm, emphatic? exclamation, which I do capitalize, but by my own implied rules above, probably shouldn't.

Bridget Locke said...

Since I was raised that it was a major no-no to use to Lord's name in any way/shape/form, I don't. However, Jen is right. God when referring to the deity. god in reference to a nonspecific. :)

Whee! LOL!

beth kery said...

Hi Caroloyn Jean!

It seems to be the accepted format to do things as Azteclady suggested. It can get a little bit confusing in fantasy realms sometimes, but it's usually the Christian God that gets the uppercase only.

Great discussion.

Lori--Ah, a witty god. Got a smile out of that one.

Carolyn Crane (aka CJ) said...

Az: so on the goddammit question, you are going with intent of the speaker, sort of like MJ?

KB: always!

ML: Thanks!

Nicola: Right, the Jesus Christ exclamation complicates things, doesn't it?

BL: You never say OMG? I didn't know that.

Beth Kery: Okay, so you always cap Goddamnit and Oh my God? You consider that to always refer to the JC God in anybody's mouth?

azteclady said...

CJ, the last comment was my rather inept transcript of what my s.o. was rambling on the topic :grin: but yeah, the consensus is to go with the character's motivations/upbringing.

He also mentioned that in most cases of using it as an expletive, like the hammer/thumb = goddammit! example, it would not be a reference to God, but a reflex, hence the lower case.

Have we confused the matter further for you? :grin:

Tumperkin said...

Great post - I'm a mixture of Azteclady *blows kiss* and RfP/Meljean. In other words, I need to read more widely.

orannia said...

That is one fascinating question...and lots of fascinating answers! Sometimes I just love the English language :)

JenB said...

I say OMG, but in my head the "G" stands for "gosh" or "goodness". I don't use God as a swear word either, Bridget.

I'm a goody-goody. LOL

RfP said...

All this is why I sometimes use "oh my dog". No caps needed, and no taking-in-vain of any specific god.

Anonymous said...

When referring to or directly addressing the one true living God, "God" is capped. Whether one believes in God or not is irrelevant. It is a proper name. In "God knows," "God" is capped. In "my god" or "dear god," "god" is not capped unless the one true living God is being referred to or addressed directly; for example, "My God loves me" (referring to God), "Dear God, I pray for..." (addressing God), "My god/dear god, that's a big fish" (the word "god" is used as an exclamation, not a noun in direct address). Unless it occurs at the beginning of a sentence, "goddamn" is never capped.

Kullervo said...

"Hey Mom, did you see the article that Dad wrote?"

"Hey Robert, did you see the article that my dad wrote?"

Proper nouns get capitalized, common nouns do not. If you use a common noun as a thing's name, you are using it as a proper noun.

"The sea is sure rough today."

"O Sea, thou are rough today!"

That's all there is to it.