Propagating initial capitals

Where a sentence doesn’t start with a normal capital, for whatever reason, there’s no need to propagate the requirement for an initial capital letter until you find something that can take one!

There are occasions when sentences don’t start with an uppercase A to Z. (The actual content of the sentence that is, not punctuation such as quotation marks or brackets.) Dutch has a typographical rule that postpones the capital letter to the first whole word, which is also often erroneously applied after numbers or outside brackets. English doesn’t do that. Examples:

  • tButanol is the simplest tertiary alcohol => t-butanol is
  • 91% Of the recipients apply the skills learned => 91% of
  • 2017 Was a difficult year => 2017 was…
  • Nausea/Vomiting are common => Nausea/vomiting are
  • 2-Year-old horses must be registered => 2-year-old horses
  • spoken contractions that start with an apostrophe simply get a capital like anything else (‘Tain’t true. ‘Twas so. ‘Snot fair.) – not that you’re likely to come across those in professional translation work.

Stylistically, such sentences can be far from pretty; rewriting or expanding can often get rid of the issue anyway. Usually worth considering.

US English is fonder of capitals than UK English. Names of chemicals like t-butyl alcohol are sometimes treated as if the t- part wasn’t there (or as if it’s punctuation); the Wiki pages have quite a few examples! Many US authors would capitalize both halves of the formulation with the slash above too.

Prevalence: moderate. It’s not a very common situation.
Frequency: high. But it’s often wrong when it does turn up.
Native: no. It’s a Dutch peculiarity.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

2 thoughts on “Propagating initial capitals

  1. Hmh, I wonder what happened here, because in Dutch you are not supposed to capitalize the examples you gave. I don’t believe the Dutch rule is true, it was never taught to me that way, anyway. If the first letter is not a capital (for whatever reason, but mostly because it is a number), there is no capital at the beginning of a sentence…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s why I said “erroneously”! But these are real-life examples.

      The Dutch rule (according to taaladvies) is for things like “‘s Avonds…” and “‘t Was…” and I suspect people then apply it overzealously elsewhere.


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