In general, it is good to learn new things. I am, however, a little disturbed by how many new things about English I have learnt over the last few years. Given how long I had to spend in school, I might hope that I would have been well-versed in these concepts by the time I graduated. It is a fact that my English teacher never formally taught us the rules of grammar, but I find many other people at a similar or worse level.
Contributing to the situation is that most of “the rules of English grammar” are not rules at all. Many of them are prescriptions; someone’s opinion of how English should or should not be written. Such opinions have many origins. How does on decide whether to accept or ignore a prescription? There are a number of style guides, such as the “Chicago Manual of Style” and Gower’s Plain Words. One may be obligated to follow one of these if writing for certain publications. Most guides differ on various points so whatever you write some of your readers will consider wrong! My personal “acid test” is based on whether a rule or prescription contributes to clarity and comprehension.
Another problem with mastery of English is that at an early age we are sold other lies. Not only are most rules not rules: we are taught false dogma too. “Sound it out” is not useful advice for learning how to spell English words. One in eight English words are not spelt how they are pronounced, and the same phoneme can be represented by a variety of letter combinations. One of the first things I recall writing at primary school used the word “wiv” multiple times.
To my shame, my Achilles’ heel in English is capitalization. I have no problem with beginning a sentence with a capital, nor with capitalizing the pronoun “I”. A fairly recent piece of knowledge is not to capitalize articles, prepositions nor coordinating conjunctions in title case. The problem is proper nouns, and another commonly encountered lie. This lie typically runs something like “Capitalization is simple, simply capitalize proper nouns!” Firstly, most articles entirely fail to mention that there is something called a “proper adjective” too, and that these should also be capitalized, except when they are not! Hence, it is “Italian coffee”, not “italian coffee”. A good rule of thumb is to always capitalize names of nations and nationalities. Some terms like “french fries” are no longer regarded as proper nouns, however. One source I have says “brussel sprouts”, another “Brussel(s) sprouts”!
As for the rules being simple: the US Government Printing Office Style Manual section on capitalization is 17 pages!
Identifying a proper noun is fairly simple when it is a given name or part of it is a given name. Capitalization can clarify, such as the grammar joke about the difference between “Helping Uncle Jack off a horse” and “Helping uncle jack-off a horse”. Place names are fairly clear, until we start using adjectives such as north, south, central etc. A trick here is to replace the compass direction in the phrase with a term such as “southern”. Consider “I know south New York and am from the South Bronx”. The first “south” is a common adjective indicating part of New York, while the second is an integral part of a place name. Family positions such as mother, uncle etc are capitalized when the preceding part of a title, or when used to substitute for a name.
The key word to remember when trying to identify a proper noun or adjective is “specific”. There are many people in the world, but “John Smith” is a specific individual (even though there are thousands of people of the same name).
I will admit, I remain uncertain about some areas. “The cowboy fires his Colt.” is clear. Colt is the name of a specific company, derived from the name of a specific individual. “Colt” here is a contraction of the name of a specific gun model, such as “Colt Peacemaker”. By the same criteria, it is “Armalite” rather than “armalite”. But what about “claymore” as in “claymore mine”? Claymore, the sword, is probably not a proper noun. It is a subcatergory of sword, but not really a specific model or trademark. Claymore the mine is a specific model of mine, but the term is also used for other models that work in a similar fashion. And is a military name a trademark or specific label?
My fallback of clarity and comprehension has only limited use when it comes to capitalization. Capitalization has very little relevance to spoken English. You cannot hear a word is capitalized when written. The only example that I can think of works in the reverse direction, as in when we use capitals to represent a certain word is stressed, such as “…the judge really IS a donkey!”
To confuse matters, the capitalization rules of other languages are different to those of English. German capitalizes all nouns. Other languages and alphabets use different systems or do not bother at all. Although an advocate of a German-based conlang, Molee was in favour of discarding capitals entirely.
Capitals are a visual, rather than a verbal element of communication. This needs to be kept in mind if we are ever going to simplify and rationalize capitalization for English and conlangs. Does it matter if I write “karate” rather than “Karate”, or if I wrote “Claymore Mine, Claymore mine or claymore mine”? In all variants the meaning is clear. On the other hand, “Polish” and “polish” have different meanings, and even differing pronunciations. “Save the Earth!” has a different meaning to “Save the earth! (Grandad wants it to plant some cuttings)”
“Grammar Essentials for Dummies” remarks that capitalization is more about tradition than logic, which gives us a hint on the right direction to take. New capitalization rules need to be simple, consistent, brief and geared towards clarity and comprehension. We need to look at European languages using the Latin alphabet that make less use of capitals than English or German.
What to do in the meantime? Articles on capitalization will sometimes tell you, “If in doubt, look it up”. This would be good advice except most on-line dictionaries do not identify proper nouns, or worse, are inconsistent. Unless you are bound by a particular style guide, my suggestion is to observe that given for capitalization in the Wikipedia Manual of Style. This has the merit that it is easily accessible any time one has an internet connection. Writer's Web provides this quick reference, although some style points may differ.