The Rules of Capitalization

It seems to me that fewer people are following the rules of capitalization. This is never more obvious than in comment threads on the Internet and social media. Reading this comments, you’d think the commentators mistook English for German. In German, all nouns are capitalized.

I play a game where I try to guess why the author of a comment chose to capitalize a particular word.  Often, it seems to me that the word was capitalized to give it emphasis, as if capitalizing the word gives it added importance. A typical sentence might look like this: “When Joe Politician said he was going to do something about Health Care, he was Lying to his Constituents.”

(For some reason, the comments are almost always political in nature.)

In the above example, the author got about half of his capitalizations correct. “When” should be capitalized because it is a the first word in the sentence. “Joe Politician” should be capitalized because it is a proper noun. But “Health Care”? No, I don’t think so. And you don’t typically capitalize a gerund. Constituents is not a proper noun.

Then there are the extremes. People who write in all-caps; this is what the Internet calls shouting. There are people who don’t bother with capitalization at all. I’ve never understood the reason for this. Is it a stylistic thing? It is laziness? After all, capitalizing a word requires tapping the extra Shift key.

I see unusual capitalization in email as well. There, at least, there is some consistency to the patterns. Email correspondents a generation older than I am tend to capitalize more words, for some reason.

Some people get upset when certain words are not capitalized, even though it is grammatically correct to leave them lowercase. For example, “The president spent his day playing golf,” is grammatically correct. As I learned it, you don’t capitalize a title when it is used in place of a name. On the other hand, writing, “When President Ford arrived at the White House…” it is appropriate to capitalize the title because it is used directly before the name.

I am occasionally confused myself. Titles always get me. Do I capitalize “is” in a title? Turns out the answer is yes, you capitalize all verbs in the title, including all forms of the verb “to be” of which “is” is one instance. On the other hand, you don’t capitalize coordinating conjunctions in a title, unless it is first or last. Thus: “Beauty and the Beast” not “Beauty And The Beast.”

I don’t know about you, but I hear a word differently in my head when it is capitalized. For me it is similar to a quoted word or phrase, which I also hear stressed differently in my head. Reading a sentence like, “The Mets are the Best team in baseball,” puts the emphasis on the word “best” in my head. The notion that the Mets are the best team in baseball is a patently ridiculous one.

That is why the rules of capitalization are so important.

Awareness Days

Walking into work this morning, the big digital sign that hangs above the food court alerted me that March is National Caffeine Awareness month. The month is there to bring awareness to caffeine use, abuse, and even addiction.

It seems like every month is some kind of awareness month or other. Every week or day, for that matter. As I write this essay on Friday, March 10, I’ve learned that today is, among other things, “Pack Your Lunch Day,” and “Middle Name Pride Day.” I know “Pack Your Lunch Day” by another name. I call it a “weekday.”

It is also “Skirt Day,” and “International Bagpipe Day.” Tomorrow is “World Plumbing Day.” As a child, whenever I had a fever, I had strange fever dreams where I had redo the piping of the entire world. I don’t need World Plumbing Day to remind me of that. Tomorrow is also “Submarine Day,” and the ultra-specific “Oatmeal Nut Waffles Day.”

My birthday falls in March, and it turns out that in addition to my birthday, we can all celebrate “International Whiskey Day,” “Quirky Country Music Song Titles Day,” and “Spanish Paella Day.” Three things that, when combined, should make for hilarious birthday celebration.

In addition to being Caffeine Awareness Month, March is also Nutrition Month, Kidney Month, Craft Month, Credit Education Month, and the all-important Cheerleading Safety Month. It is also “International Ideas Month.” I don’t know if this means March celebrates ideas that come from other countries, or if it is an international celebration of ideas.

There are so many awareness days that some are bound to conflict. June 1 is Go Barefoot Day. It is also Say Something Nice Day. Those go well together for someone with a foot fetish. Not so much for someone who doesn’t like feet. August 1 is Respect for Parents Day, while at the same time it is International Childfree Day. World Religion Day shares January 18 with Winnie the Pooh Day. December is Write a Business Plan month and Tie Month. That works out well. You’ll need to wear a tie when presenting your business plan.

February 29 is Rare Disease Day. Are people are only aware of rare diseases once every four years?

There is no escaping some daily awareness day. I wish there could be an International Nothing’s Doing Day, but its presence on a calendar somewhere would cause a paradox.

This post will appear on Thursday, March 16, which is Lips Appreciation Day, Panda Day, No Selfies Day, and Freedom of Information Day.

Look, I am well aware that I am addicted to caffeine. I don’t need a month to remind me of that. A morning without caffeine does the trick just fine.

Reader Request Week Coming On March 26, 2017

Just a quick update: I’ve gotten several suggestions of things to write about for Reader Request Week. I’ve decided to make the week of March 26 Reader Request Week here on the blog. If you’ve put in your request already, I should have it. If you haven’t already done so and would like to suggestion something you’d like to see my write about, go ahead and drop your suggestion in the comments here, or shoot me an email at jamie [at] jamietoddrubin [dot] come.

The Birds and The Bees

I awoke last Thursday morning to the sound of bird song. It was the first bird song of the season, at least at that dark hour of the morning. It was a sure sign of spring. I’ve written before about the telltale signs of spring that I look for.

You’d think that the bird song would be annoying, but it isn’t. At least, it isn’t on that first day. It can be annoying, but only if it becomes loud enough to penetrate my sleep. The birds have woken me up before, and it once I hear their twittering, it is hard to get back to sleep. But on Thursday, I heard them a few minutes before I was set to wake up. They served as a kind of pleasant alarm clock.

Later that day, while walking around the block and taking in the warm sun (it was nearly 70 ℉) I finally smelled the smells of spring. Many of the cherry blossom trees that ring the office and apartment builds of the block were in full bloom, and the smell of them was yet another sure sign of spring.

There were more signs of springs on Thursday. When I went to take the empty trash and recycling bins into the backyard, I noticed a few bees buzzing around the bushes. Trees are blossoming and flowers are blooming, so the bees have gotten busy, too. The birds and the bees are good indicators that spring is on its way.

Reports are that spring arrived unusually early this year. That’s how it gets reported: “Spring arrives early!” But of course, that isn’t what has happened. Spring arrives on the vernal equinox, as it always does. What the reports mean is that spring-like weather has arrived early. To claim that spring has arrived early is to claim an alternative fact.

Has spring-like weather arrived early? It seemed like it had, until Facebook showed me a photo this morning, one of their “On this day” jobs. It was from one year ago today. I was sitting on our front steps, wearing shorts, and reading a book. Spring-like weather had arrived early last year, too, but we’d forgotten about that.

Spring-like weather might come early, and the spring equinox might provide a more rigid boundary between the seasons, but for me, the one sure sign that spring has arrived is spring training, when pitchers and catchers are called to camp to begin their workouts for the baseball season. In that sense, spring always arrives early for me.

Along the same lines, fall always comes later for me. The birds may fly south, and the bees may return to their hives as fall approaches. The autumnal equinox may fall late September, but for me, fall begins with the first pitch of the baseball postseason.


My office building is across the river from Washington, D.C., and has a good view of the D.C. skyline. Everywhere I look, cranes have sprung up like weeds. This isn’t anything particularly new. I’ve noticed these massive cranes for a decade or more now. They stand like upright T-squares scattered about the city.

It’s not just Washington, D.C. Everywhere I go, I see these cranes. I’ve seen them driving through Portland, Maine. I’ve seen them in Albany, New York, and Savannah, Georgia. I’ve seen them in Orlando, Florida, and London, England, and Venice, Italy.

Washington, D.C. is the 22nd most populous city in the United States, and I can easily count a dozen cranes. Throughout the big cities of the country, there must be thousands of these massive cranes, carrying heavy loads to the top of buildings. Driving up and down the eastern coast of the United States, there is no shortage of these cranes. The crane business must be thriving. Where do all these cranes come from?

These are the kinds of things I think about while driving on one of our road trips. What, I wonder, is the process for ordering a crane? Are the cranes custom-made for the job? Can they be reused? Do you rent a crane, or do you purchase it outright? Who are the crane salespeople, and what are their days like? When it gets close to the end of the month, are the crane salespeople eagerly cold-calling construction companies with the hope of padding their sales?

Are the companies that make the cranes the same companies that sell the cranes? Or has a middle-market emerged, a kind of crane brokerage, one that specializes in pairing you up with the crane most suited to your needs?

Have you ever seen one of these cranes put up or taken down? Me neither. One day, there is nothing more than big hole in the ground where a building will go. The next, a crane stands astride the hole, with an American flag blowing in the breeze one hundred feet up. How does that happen? Obviously the crane has to be put together. It must come in pieces, but those pieces have to be awfully big. How many trucks does it take to cart in all of the pieces of one of these cranes? Do these trucks only venture out in the wee hours of the night? I have never seen a caravan of crane-bearing trucks driving down the highway, but I have seen cranes appear overnight.

And how, exactly, does one put a crane together? Wouldn’t you need another, perhaps smaller, crane? If so, doesn’t this lead to a bootstrapping problem? There is probably a YouTube video out there somewhere that shows a time-lapse of a crane being assembled, but I’m too lazy to look for it.

The problem with cranes, as I see it, is that they make it obvious that a city is never finished. Oh, look, a new crane just went up. I’ll have to avoid that part of town now, because traffic is probably snarled up. Cranes take up space. Anyone who has ever gone through some home improvement—a kitchen or bathroom remodel, for instance—yearns for the days when the dust has cleared, and the house is back in order. That never happens with cities these days. Two cranes come down and two more go up.

Just once, I’d like to see a city skyline absent of cranes. “Hey, look!” I’d shout, gleefully, “they’ve finally finished!”

Technically, Literally

There are times when the Little Man and the Little Miss say things that other people say all the time, but which sound surprising coming from them. Recently, it has been their colloquial use of the words, “Technically” and “Literally.”

The Little Man might be describing something he built in Minecraft. “And then,” he’ll say excitedly, “I built this tunnel that literally goes through the mountain.” The Little Miss will be describing her day in school, and say something like, “And then my friend go put on the ‘think about it’ list because she technically didn’t do what the teacher said.”

Although I am guilty of using “literally” if I am I over-excited about something, I’ve taught myself to avoid it in my writing, and that has helped me avoid it in my speaking. There was a time when I was something of a know-it-all, and often would clarify things, by saying “Technically…” while the people around me understandably rolled their eyes. I broke that habit a long time ago. I think.

Strunk & White have this to say about “literally” in The Elements of Style:

Often incorrectly used in support of exaggeration or violent metaphor.

I like the term “violent metaphor.”

My dictionary defines “literally” this way: “in a literal sense or manner: actually.” Strunk & White would prefer “actually” because it omits needless words. Confusion arises, however, because the dictionary provides a second definition: “in effect: virtually.” It does on to try to explain the confusion:

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but often appears in context where no additional emphasis is necessary.

In other words, saying “And then, my head literally exploded,” is fine because it is hyperbole. But the hyperbole is probably excessive. It is just as effective to say, “And then, my head exploded.”

Strunk & White have nothing to say on the use of “technically.” My dictionary defines the term as “something technical, esp: a detail meaningful only to a specialist.”

I don’t know when “technically” became part of the vernacular. We live in a technical age, sure, but the term is not used in a technical sense. It’s more often used to correct what the speaker thinks of as an inaccurate piece of information.  How did we go from a detail meaningful only to a specialist, to add an almost parenthetical detail, as in the Little Miss saying, “because she technically didn’t do what the teacher said.”

Still, things could be worse. When I was growing up, everything was wicked, or rad, and spoken conversation was a staccato of “likes.” “I was like, ‘No way dude,’ and he was like, ‘Way dude.’”

You literally can’t get any worse than that, although technically, you probably can.

The Problem With Routines

I forgot to bring my lunch to work last Wednesday morning. The reason I forgot was due to a seminar I attended 20 years ago this May in Santa Monica, California.

The seminar was a customer service training that my department had arranged for us. The company that they brought in to do the training was Ouellette & Associates. It was one of the best training sessions I’ve ever had, and it was my introduce to the great people at O&A. Over the years, I’ve taken several other seminars with them, and they have all been outstanding.

How did this customer service seminar from decades past cause me to forget to bring my lunch to work last week? It so happens that the facilitator from that very first training session was in our office on Monday and Tuesday last week. We had arranged to grab dinner Tuesday evening, and at the appointed time, we met, and headed over to a nearby restaurant. We spent the next 2-1/2 hours catching up. It was great, and the time flew by.

It also meant that I didn’t get home until nearly 9 pm, I time by which I am usually already in bed. It threw off my routine. Kelly had put all three kids to bed, and was in bed herself. I felt rushed, behind the curve. And so I gathered my things for the next, and showered, and then got into bed and went to sleep.

I did not make my lunch. The thought of lunch was nowhere in my brain when my head hit the pillow.

Normally, I make my lunch right after dinner. We clear off the table, and put the dishes away, and then, since I’m in the kitchen, I make my lunch. I toss it into the refrigerator, and I’m all set for the next day.

But on Tuesday evening, my routine was broken, and that carried over to Wednesday morning. I usually grab a Coke on the way out the door. I’m Coke person, not a coffee person. But there was no Coke left, and that threw off my routine in the morning. I left without thinking about my lunch.

And so it was that Wednesday, right around the time my stomach began its daily grumbles for the midday meal, I realized in a moment of sudden—but brief—panic that I had forgotten to make my lunch.

I went to Shake Shake for lunch instead.

This illustrates the problem with routines. Routines are great, habits are great, but they also make me blind to what can happen when things go sideways. Fortunately, it is usually little things, like forgetting my lunch, but each time something like this happens, I try to remind myself to go through a mental checklist when things do go sideways.

Any system that claims to teach you how to make a habit out of something needs to include a chapter on what to do when your routine goes awry. Because despite everything, routines will go awry.

Stoptional Signs

The longer I’ve been driving, the more it seems that people obey traffic rules only when it is convenient for them to do so. I was reminded if this the other day, when I followed several cars to a quiet intersection in our neighborhood. A stop sign faced us, but not the cross-traffic. There was no cross-traffic at the time, and the two cars in front of me didn’t even give a nod of acknowledgement to the stop sign. They slowed just enough to make the right turn safely. The second car’s brake lights barely flickered. It made think that instead of a “Stop” sign, what we have are “Stoptional” signs.

For a long time, I didn’t know why this kind of behavior annoyed me. I’ve written about it before. On the one hand, there is the annoyance at seeing other people flagrantly break the rules of the road, while I adhere to them. On the other hand, why should it bother me. Many of these lapses occur at times when there is no other traffic in sight. I have wondered from time-to-time if there has ever been a study correlating a person’s disregard for the rules of the road with a higher accident rate. But as I often see this disregard at times and places when accidents would be unlikely, I’ve never bothered to pursue it.

I considered a scenario most drivers have experienced at one time or another: You are driving down a long road in the middle of nowhere. You come to a red light at an intersecting road. There is no traffic anywhere in sight. Do you wait at the red light, or proceed through the light? As there are no police or other cars around, proceeding through the light doesn’t hurt anyone, right?

Then I began to realize what it is that bothers me about this behavior. We stop at a stop sign to build the habit of stopping when we see one so that we don’t ever accidentally run one and cause a crash. It is the habit that is important. When building a habit, you want to avoid breaking the chain at all costs. The idea is to make the habit an innate thing that you never have to consciously think about. Running through stops signs and red lights at deserted intersections breaks that chain. It works against habit formation, and that, in turn has consequences.

I enjoy driving much more than I used to. When I lived in L.A. I drove everywhere because I had to. My commute was terrible. It took nearly 15 years for me to shake that feeling. These days, we drive to Florida and to Maine each year, and it is delightful. I know that I shouldn’t let little things like this get to me. Sometimes, I just wish people would show less disdain for the rules of the road. Is that too much to ask?

Lost In a Book

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, mostly because it is the only way I can manage to squeeze more reading time into my day. The more I listen to audiobooks, the more I am amazed at the power of the written word. Every now and then I have the opportunity to read a paper book. I am, as I write this, reading Forever by Pete Hamill, a book that I read, and loved back in 2003 when it first came out. My memory of the book has faded just enough to make it a real treat to read it again.

The written word has a power over me. Within a paragraph or two of any piece of fiction I pick up, the words fade from the page, and I am lost in a book. I see and hear and smell and taste and feel the things the author wants to experience. The images form in my mind in a way that no motion picture has been able to improve upon. All sense of time and place fade away, and I can get through fifty, sixty, even a hundred pages—given the time—before I come up for air.

Occasionally, I get tripped up. I start to see the words on the page, I start to think about the words on the page, and this breaks the spell. No longer is the story playing out in my head. Instead, I am seeing just words on a page, and wondering how these words could have ever created such an experience in my mind. This never happens with audiobooks. It is reading that puts me into that special place, and it is when I acknowledge that I am read that I am plucked out of the story.

I think that is the secret to reading. Learning to tune out the mechanics of what you are doing, and let the story unfold. It is hard when you are a new reader. I listen to the Little Man practice his reading, and I can see in his face that it is all mechanics for him. He might comprehend what he is reading, but the magic isn’t happening yet. I imagine for some, that magic never happens. The words never get out the way. The mechanics of the process take too much focus, and the spark doesn’t catch.

I don’t know if this is something that can be taught. I know that for me, it seemed to happen pretty early, but I don’t know how it happened. I wish I could remember the first time that I started to read a book only to become lost in the book. I imagine it was like passing through some magical doorway. At first I was just seeing the words, sounding them out under my breath. Then, the words were gone and the story had taken over, and for the first time in my life, I was lost in a book.

Books For A Desert Island

My post on favorites yesterday put me in mind of my favorite books, and how they have changed over the years. That in turn led to wonder what books I absolutely must have for a reading emergency. And that led me to reconsider my answer to the question, “What books would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?”

Let’s set aside the utter preposterousness of the premise for now. Let’s now worry about how I got onto the island, or why I had a bunch of books with me in the first place. Let’s not sweat over what I’d do for food or water, how I’d protect myself from the sun and the weather. Let’s instead consider the books that I’d want to have with me on that island, and why I’d want them.

It would make sense for me to bring along my favorite books. My current favorite is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. But when I consider the loneliness of a desert island (to say nothing of the opportunity it presents for uninterrupted reading), the book doesn’t call to me.

For a long time now, I’ve thought that if I were stranded on a desert island, the books I’d most want with me are Will and Arial Durant’s Story of Civilization series. This series of books began in the early 1930s as Will Durant’s magnum opus to chart civilization through he ages. When he started writing, the thought he might have five books in the series. He ended up with 11 volumes, spanning forty years, and winning one Pulitzer prize Volume 10, Rousseau and Revolution in 1968. The books total more than 10,000 pages, and reach into all parts of civilization through the age of Napoleon. These are the books I’d want with me if I ever happen to be stranded on a desert island. There are several reasons.

  1. It would take a long time to read them through.
  2. Durant has a delightful style to his writing, one that is witty and engaging.
  3. The books are packs so densely with information that even upon re-reading them, I’d learn new things.
  4. The books are also packed with the famous, infamous, and lesser known people of history. I’d live a thousand lives reading the books.
  5. The Durants traveled the world over while doing research for the books, and the books read like a travelogue in places. Despite being marooned on my narrow strip of an island with a single palm tree for shade, I could roam the world with the books.
  6. I’ve always felt that reading them all at once, cover-to-cover, would give a sense of the sweep of human history rarely achievable in the hustle and bustle of our modern world.
  7. I’d make all kinds of wise and intelligent observations in the margins—observations that might be lost to all time if I was never found, and the books crumbled to dust.

I’m not superstitious, but I never travel with a complete set of The Story of Civilization. I wouldn’t want to tempt fate.

What’s Your Favorite?

Favorites are big with my kids right now. “What’s your favorite, Pokémon?” the Little Man asks me. “What’s your favorite Star Wars character?” “What’s your favorite video game?” It is amusing to hear them ask, but it is more interesting when I turn the question back on them. “What is your favorite TV show?” “What is your favorite book?” The Little Miss answers decisively. The Little Man hedges with answers like, “I like all of them the same.”

Favorites don’t mean the same thing to me as an adult as they did when I was a child, a teenager, even when I was in my twenties. In those earlier times favorites were absolutes. They were laws of the universe, unchanging and immutable once fixed firmly in place.

My favorite movie was The Right Stuff. My favorite book was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. My favorite baseball team was the New York Yankees. My favorite baseball player was Reggie Jackson. The Yankees are still my favorite baseball team. But three out of four of my favorites are no more.

Later, my favorite movie was Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book. It was the first movie that I recall where the movie did justice to the book. My favorite drink used to be milk. I still like milk a lot, but I wouldn’t call it my favorite drink. Coke is my favorite drink today. My favorite baseball player is Derek Jeter. My favorite writer used to be Isaac Asimov. Today my favorite writer is Stephen King. My favorite book is 11/22/63 by Stephen King. My favorite movie is White Christmas, and my favorite crooner is Bing Crosby. My favorite actress is Grace Kelly.

My favorite place to visit is Maine. But I like visiting Florida in the winter. My favorite way to travel is by car. It’s easier than flying. My favorite car is a Kia. We’ve had two Kia, and I’ve loved both of them. My favorite car used to be a Saturn.

The Little Man will often ask me, “Daddy, what’s your favorite food?” I tell him that it depends on my mood. “It’s okay to have lots of favorites.” I think that’s true, although it took me half a lifetime to learn that. I recognize that what is my favorite today, might not be my favorite tomorrow. When I was younger, I was doggedly loyal to my favorites. These days, I enjoy them for what they are, knowing that as time passes and I experience new things, new favorites are always on the horizon.

My favorite ice cream is chocolate, but sometimes I order vanilla just to mix things up. They are putting in a Five Guys down the street from my house, but I have yet to find a place that beats In-n-Out when it comes to a burger and fries.

My Favorite Newspaper

Newspapers are where I get most of my news. Most larger papers still have print editions, but I suspect that they will be in the minority by the time my kids are grown up. We’ll still call the digital equivalents “newspapers”, although they will not contain any actual paper.

In fifth grade, we learned how to read a newspaper. We were taught were the lead story—according to the paper’s editor—was located. We learned what it meant when a story was “above the fold.” Above the fold is another of those terms whose provenance will grow less clear as paper editions continue to fade.

I prefer small town papers to the big city papers. In small town papers, the news seems relevant to the everyday lives of the citizens in those towns. When we travel, I try to get my hands on the local paper in the town we are staying. Hotels are making this increasingly difficult. Most of the hotels I stay in—when they provide papers at all—provide USA Today.

I don’t live in a small town, however, and I never have. Living in a suburb outside Washington, D.C., my local paper is the Washington Post. It is not a bad paper, but it is heavy on the inside baseball of inside the Beltway politics, and I’ve grown tired of that.

I read the New York Times now and then, but I get the sense the paper takes itself way too seriously. Papers should report the news, but I feel like a little too much commentary slips into the news reports of the Times.

When I lived in L.A. I often read the Los Angeles Times. There was lots to like about the L.A. Times. It had good writers, and its local section was among the best local section for a major newspapers I’ve ever encountered. It had one of my all-time favorite columnists, Al Martinez. Until I read Al Martinez’s column, I didn’t realize what power a columnist had.

I recently started reading the L.A. Times again, as an alternative to the Post and the New York Times. It has quickly become my favorite newspaper. I don’t read the paper edition. But one thing the L.A. Times does that I wish other papers would do is make a fully readable digital version of the paper edition available online. It looks and feels like you are reading a newspaper, and as someone who has grown up reading actual newspapers, it feels comfortable.

There are several reasons I like the L.A. Times:

  1. It brings me a take on the news that isn’t the East Coast view of the world. I get plenty of the East Coast perspective by living here. It’s nice to have an another take.
  2. The writing is good, and the reporting is good as well.
  3. The sports coverage, and especially the baseball coverage, is a cut above what both the New York Times and the Washington Post provide.
  4. They do a better job at covering science and technology than the other papers I’ve read.
  5. It reminds me of the years that I lived in L.A., and that nostalgia feels good.

I don’t miss living in Los Angeles, but I missed the L.A. Times, and I’m glad I started reading it again.