Maybe It Doesn’t Matter!

I was taught not to capitalize prepositions (in, by, for, with, to) in a title. Here’s how I would write the title of Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel: Gone with the Wind.

But I just found out that the Chicago Manual of Style has an exception. If you’re using a phrasal verb, you can capitalize the preposition (which -the experts say – might actually be an adverb. Don’t you just love grammar?).

A phrasal verb has two words that go together: fall down and pick up are examples. Gone with is not a phrasal verb. That’s why you don’t capitalize with in Gone with the Wind.

The two words in hang on really do go together. So we have this song title: “Let’s Hang On to What We’ve Got.”

Watch out is another phrasal verb. Eric Clapton has a song called “Watch Out for Lucy.” You should capitalize out.

But what about watch over? I don’t think those two words go together. They don’t sound like a unit to me.

There’s a gorgeous Gershwin song called “Someone to Watch over Me.” Technically you shouldn’t capitalize “over.” And there’s another old song called “Moon over Miami.” Same thing: don’t capitalize “over.” Moon over isn’t a common expression.

But I’m struggling here – for several reasons. First, I think the rule is shaky.

Go on is obviously a phrasal verb. But what about Go forth, as in “Go forth and multiply?” If you’re familiar with the Bible, it sounds like a phrasal verb. But if you didn’t grow up in a Bible-reading household, you might not think those two words together.

Another issue (for me, anyway) is that I hate grammar gobbledygook like “phrasal verb.” Gack.

It gets worse. Recently The Chicago Manual of Style decided to lower-case out in the title of a recent book: Getting out of Saigon. They didn’t think getting and out went together.

But several people wrote in to say that they think getting out is a phrasal verb after all. The Chicago Manual of Style backed down (sort of). You can read more about it here.

That means some very smart people are voting for Getting Out of Saigon. Other equally smart people are sticking with Getting out of Saigon.

And I am getting out of this argument.

Language is slippery. When I was in school, I had beloved teachers who insisted that language questions always have a right answer if you search hard enough.

But experience has taught me that language is a human invention, not a divine one. Often there isn’t a right answer. Mistakes are built in.

In future posts I’m going to be showcasing some inconsistencies – usages that sound right but blatantly break the rules.

Let’s go back to those capital letters. What should we do?

You’re reading this post because you’re curious about language. I would bet serious money that you’re a busy person with many interests.

Do not – please – waste your precious time worrying about putting a capital letter on a preposition (which – it turns out – could also be an adverb) in a title. Go eeny-meeny if you have to. Nobody is even going to notice – honest!



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.