Tinkering with the Language
I suspect numerous readers of Facebook posts, tweets, and news stories haven’t even noticed that in recent months persons with black skin are now referred to as Black.
The capitalization has been introduced because media organizations want to express solidarity with and sensitivity to those of African-American descent. So, many are treating the term like other ethnicities: Asian, Hispanic, and the like.
The topic has been one of ongoing discussions on the email strings I receive daily through two national freelancers’ networks.
One writer did a survey recently of multiple English language style guides and associations and found that 15 of 17 organizations now capitalize Black in referring to people.
I understand the need for sensitivity. Yet, as a lover of the English language and the need for consistency when it comes to grammatical issues, I wonder if those who have advocated for such a change appreciate the unintended consequences of tinkering with tradition.
First of all, do we then capitalize White—especially considering that white supremacist organizations have done that for years? Could doing so play into the hands of skinheads and neo-Nazi sympathizers?
Aware of that problem, some media organizations continue to use a small “w.” But others have taken to capitalizing White.
The long-term consequences, as I see it, will be increasing confusion over why there are capital B’s but not W’s in some cases, and why in others both are capped.
Some won’t understand the distinctions needed between Black people and black-and-white outfits and other variations of terminology.
And lots of readers will probably wonder what’s going on, but won’t take time to investigate.
That’s what happens when you start changing the rules of grammar and style usage.
Years ago I helped a retired pastor compile a memoir of his ministerial career. In one chapter, he talked about meeting a former ambassador from China on an overseas cruise.
When we got to the revision stage of typeset copy, he decided it would be nice to capitalize Ambassador as a sign of respect for the man.
It touched off a rather heated discussion. Normally, the only time the term would be capitalized is when it included the person’s name, i.e., Ambassador Chi Ling (a fictitious name). Without a name, ambassador should be lower-cased.
He insisted he thought it would be a good idea. I argued that if he wanted to do that, then we would have to capitalize president, secretary, and any other official he had mentioned.
“Do you really want to go back and go through every chapter to change every instance so you are consistent with those references?” I asked.
When he saw that I wouldn’t back down, he let the matter drop.
Deviations to Style
Of course, there are deviations every day to acceptable style. In general, the rules are different for news-gathering organizations, magazines, and books—the latter governed by the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) the bible (small b) of book editing.
Whenever a publisher’s manuscript departs from CMOS standards, they include a style guide with it.
That way, I know in advance the terms in question aren’t mistakes but the author’s preference.
It all gets rather tricky, which is one reason editors must continually stay abreast of the ever-changing tastes and standards of modern life and language.
However, I think we would all do well to remember the words of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, and there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
That’s because the Lord is never out of style.