Capital letters

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Key stage 3 life is full of complicated details which have to be learned - details about pop groups, clothing styles, skateboarding, football - and literacy. Think of all those thousands of new words which are absorbed, catalogued and held in minute detail. The KS3 brain is good at these things.

One part of growth in literacy is learning which words need a capital letter - a small detail in the general scheme of things, but one which we all take rather seriously as a badge of literacy. The general rules are easy to remember: capitalise names and the first word in a sentence. But we all know that the devil is in the detail of what we mean by "name" and "sentence". Let's leave sentences for another column, and focus on names.

The problem here is that "name" is much less clear than you might think.

After all, traditional grammar gets away with defining a noun as the "name" of a person, place or thing - so is "sausage" a name? Surely not. We all agree that "London" and "Fred" are names, but the KS3 problem is deciding what else qualifies. What about "Wednesday" and "tomorrow"?

The point is that the answer isn't obvious, and it's not helpful to pupils to imply that it is. That leaves them feeling stupid and confused, when in fact the system they are learning is full of rather arbitrary conventions.

It's also bad preparation for learning different conventions in foreign languages. (German gives capitals to all nouns, whereas French doesn't even give them to days of the week.) Here are some examples of details to be mastered. If you want more, try Larry Trask's excellent Penguin Guide to Punctuation. Let's assume that KS3 pupils can cope with obvious names like "John" and "London". What they need is detail about how to extend this knowledge to other words.

* We do capitalise days of the week and months, but not seasons or centuries: Wednesday, August, but spring and the twentieth century.

* We do capitalise high-ranking job titles, but not low-ranking ones: the President, but not the Cleaner.

* We do capitalise adjectives derived from names, but only when they refer directly to the people or places named: the French election, but the french window.

* We do capitalise names of school subjects based on languages, but not other subjects: English, French, but maths.

* We do capitalise some geographical regions but not others: the Middle East, but central Europe.

* We do capitalise some historical periods and movements, but not others: the Industrial Revolution but the ICT revolution.

Once you know the detail you can see that it makes some sort of sense, but a novice first has to absorb it all, point by point - just as we all did.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VISchool, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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