Dear Editor: Should we Capitalize Deity Pronouns?
This question has recently been raised in one of the (many) Facebook groups I’m a member of. This group happened to be a Christian reader group, but it’s a question that seemingly flummoxes readers and writers alike.
Do we need to capitalize personal pronouns when referring to God?
Style manuals refer to pronouns such as He, His, Him, and Your when referring to God as deity pronouns.
I was taught that we capitalize deity pronouns as a matter of respect and honour (dubious, as I’ll show below). I was also taught that we use double quotation marks for speech (still true), single quotation marks for speech (now considered dated), and to add a comma where I’d add a pause if reading aloud (not true, and a topic probably best left for another blog post).
The Facebook group’s answers unhelpfully ranged from “Yes, always” to “No, never” with a healthy sprinkling of “Sometimes” and “It depends”. Several respondents based their answers based on the practice in their Bibles … which were equally inconsistent (for those who are interested, compare the New International Version with the New American Standard Bible).
Surely there is an answer. That’s why we have style guides!
What is a style guide?
Most publishers have a style guide: a set of rules governing how they treat a range of editing questions including spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage. Editors will follow the guidelines of one (or more) of these style guides in editing or proofreading a manuscript and may also create a style sheet explaining the spelling or treatment of words specific to that manuscript to ensure correctness and consistency.
Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)
The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the two most commonly used style guides in the USA, with the other being AP (Associated Press). As a broad generalization, CMOS is more commonly used for fiction, and AP is more common in journalism. Non-fiction publishers may follow CMOS or may use a genre-specific style guide.
CMOS says (8.95):
Pronouns referring to God or Jesus are not capitalized unless a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise.
So that’s one vote for not capitalizing deity pronouns … but the author can decide.
The New Oxford Style Manual (NOSM)
The New Oxford Style Manual is one of the major UK style manuals and incorporates New Hart’s Rules (the UK equivalent of Elements of Style by Strunk & White). The NOSM (like CMOS) grew out of the need for the Oxford University Press to have a consistent view on style for their publishing business.
NOSM says (p97):
Use lower case for pronouns referring to God where the reference is clear, unless the author specifies otherwise.
That’s another vote for lowercasing deity pronouns unless the author prefers capitalization.
The Australian Style Manual (ASM)
The Style Manual is the official style manual used by the Australian government, as well as many Australian publishers and authors. New Zealand publishers may also use it, as although it’s not new (2002), it’s considerably newer than the local equivalent, which is 1995). It’s also shorter and easier to read than CMOS! ASM says (p127):
In the past, the capital letter assigned to God was often extended to the attendant pronouns … but this is now less common.
That’s a non-answer. We don’t want to know what’s common or uncommon. We want to know what’s right!
The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style (CWMS)
Zondervan (publishers of the New International Version of the Bible) recognize that the major style guides don’t address many of the style issues raised by those writing for a Christian audience, so they publish their own style guide (written by Robert Hudson). Many Christian publishers use CWMS, either alone or in conjunction with another style guide such as CMOS.
The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style says (p145):
Most publishers, religious and general, use the lowercase style … to conform to the two most popular versions of the Bible (the bestselling New International Version and the historically dominant King James Version).
That’s another vote for telling us what people do. Helpful. Not.
It might be worth pointing out that Zondervan publish the NIV. Zondervan are owned by HarperCollins, who also publish the New King James Version, which also lowercases these “deity pronouns”.
CWMS points out that (despite popular belief) we don’t capitalize as a way to show respect or honour. After all, we capitalize God and Satan, yet only one deserves our honour.
In addition, there is no true historical precedent for capitalizing. Capitalization became trendy when lots of Nouns were being Capitalized for Emphasis (a trend which rightly disturbed grammarians). William Tyndale (translator of one of the earliest English Bibles) didn’t consistently capitalize God, let alone He or Him (or he or him), and neither Hebrew nor Greek distinguishes between lowercase and capital letters the way English does, so the original Scriptures provide no guidance.
What CWMS does say is this:
[Capitalizing] gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of irrelevance to modern readers.
That’s worth thinking about—no one wants to their work to be considered dated or irrelevant.
A fiction author may therefore consider it appropriate to use He and Him in a historical novel. That may well the case, but the “rule” shouldn’t hold true for all historical fiction. It would appear odd for Jesus to refer to himself as “Me” in a biblical novel at the same time as his enemies were referring to him (Him?) as “You”.
CWMS goes on to point out that capitalization can be confusing for younger readers (who were never taught that deity pronouns should be capitalised). Also, using capitals could imply emphasis where none was intended.
Yes, the major style guides prefer that personal pronouns referring to God are not capitalized. But they also allow for author (or publisher) preference.
So if you (or your client) wants to capitalize He and Him, You and Your, then they can. My preference would be only to capitalize the pronouns referring to God in historical fiction where capitalization was consistent with the time setting (e.g. for novels set in Victorian England, but not Roman Israel).
The most important factor in any editing decision is consistency.
We can refer to Jesus as He or he, Him or him, but we must choose one and apply that style choice consistently. Neither He nor he is incorrect but using He and he is definitely wrong.