Compact Written Constructed Language: CWCL

Version 1.0

Some time ago I was rewatching “Living Planet”.
In the ocean depths, where sunlight never reaches, a great variety of creatures produce their own light for a variety of purposes.
The treasure that is David Attenborough notes that visual communication is most likely the most commonly used communication on Earth.
Why I am reminded of this is recently a friend sent me an article.
The article claimed that typing was a thing of the past, since voice recognition was now so good.
I have to use Microsoft Teams for meetings and I can assure you that this is not the case! Transcriptions are sometimes amusing, and often baffling. Part of this is that most human beings do not talk in a particularly structured or clear fashion.
The irony that my friend had written an email to tell me about this article, and the article itself was written, was not lost on me. Even more ironic was the article was from a newspaper, a medium that is probably more likely to become obsolete soon than typing will.
I will not go into all the reasons that I believe this article is wrong, nor the good reasons for hoping that this is the case.
The article did get me thinking on a quite contrary tract.
We tend to think of language as being sound, but this is only partially true.
Writing is one of the greatest and most important inventions of mankind. The majority of our centuries of knowledge is preserved as the written word, be it in books, clay tablets, scrolls or computer memory.
Creating a constructed language (conlang) is an amusing (and sometimes frustrating) diversion, but if we are honest, most of us know the majority of human society is not going to adopt yet another spoken language, no matter what advantages it may offer.
Most people assimilate information in a written form quicker than they may if it is given verbally. Comprehension may possibly be better from written sources.
Some conlangs work much better in written form than spoken. Some creators neglect phonology or euphony, or miss that many different letter combinations will be pronounced the same by certain users.
What if, I wondered, we attempt to create a conlang that is only intended to be written and read, and not spoken? Thus began CWCL: Compact Written Constructed Language.
English is often clearer in written form than spoken.
Many of the English homophones with distinct meanings have different spellings: night,/knight, week/weak, waste/waist. meet/meat, which/witch, whether/weather/wether, write/right, by/buy, break/brake, duel/dual, two/to/too, there/their/they're, your/yaw/you’re; although the latter often catch the sloppy or inattentive writer.
One of the stumbling blocks of creating a conlang is fleshing out the vocabulary. Basing CWCL on English gives an extensive range of short words, and a large body of abbreviations or contractions for longer words. Words not in the CWCL dictionary may be adopted from sources such as the Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations.
The meaning of a sentence in CWCL will often be understandable to many readers familiar with English, even if English is not their native language.
Since words are intended to be understood, but not expected to be pronounced, we have a much greater option of letter combinations.
This means we may communicate the same meaning with less keystrokes.
Additionally, more meaning may be applied in to a small area of text, useful for warning labels or lists of ingredients.
Isn’t this texttalk, some of you will be asking? Yes and no.
The transcription of text talk is entirely up to the individual writing, and limited by their imagination (or lack of). Very often the meaning is a puzzle to the recipient.
As a constructed language/form of controlled English, CWCL has an actual dictionary that may be used as a reference.
Ideally, this dictionary may be incorporated into word processors, allowing the writer to select the correct words, the reader to easily translate a message, and the author to easily and quickly enter text in CWCL and have it converted to traditional English.
CWCL would also attempt to address some of the stumbling blocks of traditional written English.
The majority of verbs will be regular.
Some of the more confusing or ambiguous features of English will be eliminated.
Grammar will become more logical and the meaning clearer.
This page is a work in progress. Expect updates and changes.

Accessibility and Convenience

CWCL should be capable of being written using the keys of a US 104 key keyboard, as this is the type most likely to be encountered globally.
Accented letters, diacritics and symbols that need more keystrokes than the use of one key and the shift, ctrl or alt key are to be avoided, at least for the most commonly used words.
If you cannot recall a CWCL word, or just choose not to, it makes little difference if you type the longer, more traditional form.

Four Items or Less

CWCL is based on an idea I have previously discussed and called 4lsh. Representing every word in English with just four letters or less may not be achievable, but hopefully this may be achieved for the majority of the most commonly used and useful words.
Some of the most commonly used or useful words will be represented by words of three or less letters.

Five Letter Words

Some five letter words from traditional English may easily be converted to four letter CWCL words.
Many five letter words end in doubled consonants that contribute nothing. Hence shell, skill, grass, class and kill are simplified to shel, skil, gras, clas and kil. Note this may be used on words already with four letter to create shorter words.
Similarly, -ck may be simplified as just -k, shack and rack becoming shak n rak.
Agent nouns or other words with the endings -er, -ar, -or become -r.
Four letter CWCL nouns become five letters or longer if pluralized (-s or -es). Four letter or less CWCL verbs become longer if made into agent nouns (-r), participles or inflected (-g, -d/-n).
A terminal -e may be omitted if it does not contribute to the preceding vowel sound. Therefore, edge and live become edg and liv.
Adoption a more phonetic spelling may be used to shorten some words. Noise becomes noyz.


The majority of verbs in CWCL will become regular.
Third person present singular inflection will not be used: I wash, you wash, he wash, she wash, we wash, they wash.
For simple past, the verb takes the ending -d (representing -ed). This may be used on the perfect tense and is used on the past participle.
The ending -g (representing -ing) may be used for the progressive and continuous tense. It is always used for the present participle.
The future tense is indicated by the use of the auxiliary verb “will” (w/wl).
The continuous/progressive tense is indicated by the use of the auxiliary verb “be” (b/bn). The ending -g (representing -ing) may be used for the progressive and continuous tense, although this is optional since the auxiliary verb established the tense.
The perfect aspect is indicated by the use of the auxiliary verb “have” (h/hd). The ending -d (representing -ed) may be used for the perfect aspect, although this is optional since the auxiliary verb established the aspect.
The present and past participles derived from regular verbs always have the ending -g or -d, respectively.
A very small number of verbs in CWCL are irregular. These happen to be some of the most widely used verbs, so learning these exceptions is relatively easy.
The most irregular CWCL verb is the verb “be (b/ws)”
“b” is used for the simple present, and with “w” for the future tense. The simple past is formed with ws (was) and the subjunctive with wr (wr).
The continuous/present participle is “bg (being)” and the perfect/past participle “bn (been)”.
The use of wr for past tense is permissible, and alternatives for present are am (first person singular), s (is), and ar (are).
The verb “do” is irregular, but considerably less so than “be”. Present/future is d/w d (do/will do). Past is dd (did). The continuous/present participle is “dg (doing)” and the perfect/past participle “dn (done)”. Only the perfect/past participle is irregular.
The verb “go” is more irregular. Present/future is g/w g (go/will go). Past is wnt (went). The continuous/present participle is “gg (going)” and the perfect/past participle “gn (gone)”.
The verb “have/had” is regular.
Verbs of communication (write, read, talk, say, state, ask etc) may have a different form to other verbs. To be decided.

Problem Verbs

Some verbs in English cause considerable unnecessary problems.
Problems with the verb lie-lay-lying-lain (intransitive) and lay-lying-laid (transitive) have been previously discussed. Add to this the unrelated meaning of lie and lying as practicing a falsehood.
The former usage may need a single transitive verb with the option of using a reflexive pronoun.
“Borrow” and “lend/loan” essentially describe the same action, but in different direction. A single verb combined with a relevant proposition could serve instead/
That “affect” is a verb, and an “effect” a noun confuses many.
By treating CWCL as a controlled language, some of these problems may be resolved.

Vowel Precedence

Or “Elves In An Obscene Union!”
“E” is the most common vowel used in English, “U” the least.
“Elves In…” is my phrase for remembering the order of vowel precedence “EIAOU”.
Vowel precedence is a tool I am trying for creating and interpreting CWCL words.
For example, should “crst” be used for “crust” or “crest”? Vowel precedence tells us crest. Should “wnt” be want, went, wont? The answer is went.
If we read “cnt”, what is it most likely to mean? Cent is a word, but one that already has a more widely used abbreviation, symbol or contraction. Cint is not an English word, so next we try “cant”.. This is a valid English word, but more common is “can't/cannot”, which is the correct answer and may also be revealed by context.

Proper Names

In general, proper names should be written in full. If a shorthand for such is to be used, it should be introduced and defined at or near the first use of the longhand term. This is just good practice in any writing. For example: “I w see Paul Brown (PB) in Winchester (wchr). PB knw e hsry of wchr.”

Th- Words

Many English words that begin with “th-” are useful words such as determiners or pronouns. Learning the CWCL for these should be one of the first steps in mastering CWCL. Most of these words still begin with th-, Note that the “exception” is the word “the”, which is represented by the single letter “e”.
that: tht, the: e, their: thr', then: thn, them: thm, there: thr, they: thy, this: ths

Wh- Words

The interrogative and relative words beginning with “Wh-”, with “how” as an honorary member, are also worth learning early on.
what: wht, when: whn, where: whr, which: whc, who: who(wh), how: hw, whom: whm, whose: wh'.

Other Symbols

The standard US keyboard offers symbols other than letters, and some of these should be utilized in writing CWCL.
The symbol @ may be used instead of the word “at”, and this meaning is already widely understood. & or + may be used in place of “and”, although using “n” involves less keys.
w/o represents “without”, and w/ is “with”.
q? represents the words “query” or “question”.
There is little point in typing out the names of numbers such as four or fifteen when we already have keys for their symbols, such as 4 or 15.
These may be combined as necessary: 3ngl and 4ngl may be read as “triangle” and “quadrangle”.
Ordinal numbers are represented by a numeral followed by the symbol “~”, so first, third, twentieth become 1~, 3~, 20~.
Fractions become a slash followed by the denominator numeral, so half, third, quarter, fifth, twentieth become /2, /3, /4, /5, /20. Logically, this suggests that /1 would mean “whole” or “complete”.
The word “number” may use the symbol “#”, the word “smile” becomes “s)” and so on.
Texttalk often uses “puns” such as B4 for before, H8 for hate, 2 for to/two/too. My gut instinct to to avoid these. Many CWCL alternatives are just as easy to use, and I am not sure how well such shorthands are understood by those for whom English is a second language.

Regular Plurals and Possessives

As already described for 4lsh, plurals are formed by adding a terminal -s. Singular words ending in one or more “s” take -es.
Irregular plurals from traditional English become regular plurals by adding -s/-es to the singular term. Hence child/children is chld/chlds, knife/knives is knif/knifs and sheep is shep/sheps.
A noun or pronoun becomes possessive by adding “-'” without any additional “s”. Unlike traditional English, all possessive pronouns in CWCL take an apostrophe.

Less Words and More Words

In his book, “Plea for an American Language”. p.121, Elias Molee describes what he considers a number of defects of traditional English. This is interesting reading, since in the century or more since, no progress has been made.
Many of Molee's comments concern phonology and euphony, which obviously have no relevance to a written-only language such as CWCL.
Comments that are relevant include that English suffers both from too many, and too few words.
In many instances, we have numerous differing words that have the same meaning. We also have various words that have multiple, different and sometimes contrasting meanings.
Of the latter, Molee give the examples “light” and “sound”. Light may mean illumination, not-heavy or not-dark. Sound may mean noise, healthy or sturdy, or the depth of water. Molee proposes separate words for each meaning.
STE attempts to assign single meanings to the English words it uses, but the meaning of the same word in different parts of speech may vary. “Light” as an adjective means not-heavy, while as a verb it refers to illumination.
“Live” in English may mean “to be living” or as an adjective such as “live (not recorded) broadcast”. The pronunciation is different so in CWCL the related but distinct meanings are represented by “liv” and “lyv”.
Systems such as STE, Special English and Plain English may be useful in refining the CWCL dictionary, although some suggested substitutions are not direct equivalents.
English has a certain amount of snobbery and reverse snobbery when it comes to word selection. CWCL will attempt to prioritize communication and clarity instead. Words made from compounding other words are often clearer in meaning. water-pipe technician, eye-doctor and fish-researcher and more transparent in meaning than plumber, oculist and ichthyologist.
CWCL needs less words than English, but more words with clear meanings.

New Grammar

Traditional English grammar is simpler than that of many languages, but there is still room for further improvement.
Many of the ideas detailed on the page on ACE grammar should be used in CWCL. This includes the hyphenation of phrasal and prepositional verbs, binding order, and rules for anaphora resolution. Some of the style suggestions given for STE are also worth consideration, keeping in mind some suggestions only apply to writing technical manuals.
CWCL may use the reflexive pronoun “se”. When used as the object of a verb it replaces such words as myself, himself, themselves etc.
Sentences in CWCL may sometimes be treated like arithmetical statements. For example, in traditional English a statement like “he saw the angry John, Alan and Jane” may be encountered. How many of these individuals are angry is not clear.
Instead, the sentence could have been more clearly written :
“he saw the angry {John}, Alan and Jane”
“he saw the angry {John, Alan} and Jane”
“he saw the angry {John, Alan and Jane}”
This concept may also be used to clarify anaphora resolution. For example:
“{John and two friends} walk. They are tired” This makes it clear John and both his friends are all tired.
CWCL sentences may also be constructed like statements in simple (symbolic) logic. Such an approach clearly identifies the failing of conlangs such as Esperanto which use binary approaches to word derivation.
For example, in Esperanto, beautiful is bela, ugly is malbela. varma is hot, malvarma is cold.
In reality, there are very few true binary opposites. Life is messy and the universe various degrees of grey rather black or white.
If we adopt “bela” as “beautiful” in CWCL, “n-bela” is “not beautiful”, or everything else that is not described or has the property of beautiful.
N- is an exclusion rather than an opposite.
In symbolic logic this would be represented as the relationship of p to ¬p.
A work in progress. Refer back to this page for changes and updates.

Why You Should Never LOL

Someone recently repeated to me the old chestnut, “language changes”. I thought about this for a few minutes, and realized this was not actually correct. If anything, “language mutates”. Some of these mutations are useful, others are not, and need to be culled.
I was recently reading Alvin Toffler’s “The Third Wave”. This is one of those books that everyone should read. I would suggest that it be required reading in schools, but it highlights many of the flaws of the Second Wave education system, so very likely not going to happen! I was reading an article on the book, and right in the middle the author makes some comment like “LOL floppy disks”. I did not bother finishing that article. Other than chewing gum with your mouth open while wearing your baseball cap backwards with a tee-shirt saying “Im an Idiot”, I cannot think of a better way to negate any point you were trying to make.
I have, incidentally, worked with someone who would actually laugh out loud at the most trivial of things. It is nowhere as much fun as you might think, and he was a true idiot. On my DVD collection there is a cast interview with an individual who ends every answer he makes with a loud guffaw. It did not make him witty or affable.
Multi-talented comedian Bill Bailey has suggested that any use of LOL be immediately countered with “NELI” (Not Even Laughing Inwardly).
This highlights one of the main flaws in using LOL as a response. Generally it is applied to a comment that was not particularly funny, let along “laugh out loud” funny.
When made as a response to a statement that was not intended to be amusing, it is outright insulting.
Infinitely worse, however, is adding a LOL to your own comment. As the actor referenced above illustrates, laughing at your own jokes does not put one in a good light. It has been considered a social gaffe since long before the internet.
Before I escaped from facebook, I observed there was effectively a rule to using LOL. The rule was:
“If you want to add LOL to the end of a statement, what you said isn’t funny. If it isn’t funny, perhaps you should not say it and look stupid”.
True humour or wit does not need a “rim-shot” or other marker. People will be laughing without being instructed to do so.
Using “LOL” does not make you funny. Instead it comes across as an affected, pretentious, pathetic, self-indulgent plea for affirmation.

Simple Punctuation for Diinlang 2.1

Punctuation in Diinlang is based on that of English, with a number of simplifications.
When spoken, punctuation of a sentence takes the form of pauses of variable length. When a punctuation symbol would be replaced by a spoken word, a word is used in preference to a symbol in the written form. This is the principle of “Punctuate like you pause”. Thus, one would write “…9 to 5…” or “…teacher or parent…” rather than “…9-5…” or  “…teacher/parent…”.
Full-Stop. When a heading finishes in a line-break it is not necessary to add a full-stop to the terminal word. This improves the aesthetics of the text.
Items in a bulleted list do not need a full-stop unless they are a sentence. Items should not end in a comma nor semi-colon.
Some style guides require the last item on a bulleted list to end in a full-stop. This is redundant unless the item is a sentence.
In Diinlang, ending with a full-stop may be seen as redundant when there is a line-break.
Capitalization rules for Diinlang have yet to be finalized. For now, assume each item in a bulleted list begins with a capital letter.
Commas, The serial comma or “Oxford comma” is permissible in Diinlang. Its use is recommended when its use clarifies the meaning of a list.
Colon: A colon is used in much the same way as in English. It serves to introduce new information such as a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series.
Whether the information following begins with a capital letter will depend on whether it is a new sentence, a bulleted list, or not. It may be used for emphasis or to join independent clauses.
A colon should not be followed by a hyphen or dash. When writing dialogue, an introductory clause does not need a colon, comma or full-stop if it is immediately followed by a quotation mark on the same line. eg She said “It is time…” An identifier that follows a quotation mark does not need to be capitalized. It is treated as the end of a sentence, however.
Question Mark? A sentence is made a question by adding a question mark to the end.
In Diinlang this represents the word “ke” and is pronounced if the sentence is read-out-loud.
Ke is placed at the start of a sentence to form the Diinlang of “Wh-” questions. In these sentences a “?” may be written at the start of the sentence rather than “ke”.
Exclamation Point! Used as in English. It should be used sparingly unless within dialogue.
Slash/ The slash symbol is used for a number of applications. The slash often represents an alternative.
When used for sentence construction, in many instances it can be replaced by words such as “or”.
If a slash is used, there should be no space between the slash and the following character, unless this would affect clarity.
A slash with a space after is used to quote the lines of a poem when line breaks are not used. eg. She wrote “Challenge in the spring/ Autumn rain bathing in light/ Children laugh lightly/ ”
Semicolon; A semicolon joins independent clauses.
The STE guide notes that the semi-colon is difficult to use correctly and suggests it is never used. It is preferable to use a comma, colon, or construct two sentences instead.
The main use for the semicolon in Diinlang is to separate the items of a complex list. A complex list is one where one or more items contains a comma.
Hyphens and Dashes– Diinlang uses the keys found on a generic keyboard for punctuation.
The hyphen (or more properly, “hyphen-minus symbol”) is used instead of an en-dash.
The hyphen joins two or more words or numbers together so they are treated as a single unit. It may form compound modifiers or compound a modifier with a noun.
When a hyphen joins two numbers, it indicates the numbers represent a unitary concept such as a period of time. Thus, “1914-1918 War”.
Where two numbers are joined together to represent a range, then a word should be used rather than a hyphen. See 9-5 example earier.
In some English uses the hyphen may be replaced by a colon. eg “My team won 3:1!” rather than “…won 3-1”
A double-hyphen is used instead of an em-dash. It is used in place of a comma, parenthesis, or colon. Using these latter symbols is preferable in Diinlang –the use of a double-hyphen or em-dash should be sparing.
A double-hyphen or em-dash might be used when a clause already contained a comma, so could not be isolated with a comma. In this application the double-hyphen is treated like brackets. They are preceeded and followed by a space, but there is no space between them and the phrase or clause within.
A double-hyphen may be used instead of a bullet when making a bulleted list.
A double-hyphen is used instead of a double-em-dash when representing missing letters in a word–“J– told G– that it was ‘All S–!’”
A triple-hyphen replaces the three-em-dash to represent a missing word or the repeated name of an author in a bibliography or reference list.
The above characters are not preceded by a space, with the exception of “?” when used at the start of a sentence and some applications of the hyphen or dash.

The Phonemes “Ch” and “W”

Two potential phonemes for Diinlang have needed special consideration.


The first is the phoneme /t͡ʃ/, which in English is the most common phoneme that the digraph “ch” is used for. “C” on its own is not used as a phoneme in Diinlang, since “k” or “s” serve instead. Some conlangs use “c” to represent /t͡ʃ/, but this may be confusing. Some natural languages, such as Portuguese, represent /t͡ʃ/ with “x” or other letters.
Since “ch” represents /t͡ʃ/, and /ʃ/ is often represented by “sh”, some phonetic systems use “tsh” for /t͡ʃ/. This raises the side issue of acceptable consonant clusters for Diinlang.
For Diinlang, the question is whether to use “ch” or “tsh” for /t͡ʃ/? If we do use “ch” then “c” becomes rather like the letter “q” in English, in that it only ever occurs as a digraph.
“Ch” in some English words sounds like it should be more accurately represented by a “jh” rather than a “tsh”. Should “church” be spelt “jhurtsh”, “jhurch”, or “tshurtsh”?


The other phoneme that needs special consideration for Diinlang is that represented by the letter “w” in English, and the symbol /w/ in IPA. In English, this letter has a distinct sound when used at the start of a word or syllable or as the digraph “wh”. When used otherwise “w” often substitutes for other phonemes, such as “oh” in “slow”, “ou” in “cow” and “or” in “saw”. The digraph “kw” is probably the best representation of the sound of “q/qu” in English. For this latter use, if nothing else, Diinlang probably needs to include “w”.
Some linguistic groups have trouble pronouncing the phoneme /w/, often substituting a “v”-sound.
When encountering “w” at the start of a word or syllable in English or Diinlang, a useful tip is to attempt to pronounce it as a “u” rather than as a “v”.

Owen's Global Alphabet

Visiting the Omniglot website I came across Owen’s “Global Alphabet”. Owen was a US senator and an advocate of phonetic English. He created his own phonetic alphabet, which it is claimed that any known language can be represented.
Owen's Global Alphabet
Owen’s alphabet supposedly has 18 symbols for vowels, 18 for consonants and six for “compound consonants”.
The compound consonants are given here as ch, th, sh, wh, ng and zh. The chart above also has the “kw” sound of the English “qu” and the “dh” sound that “th” sometimes represents in English.
The first thing that strikes me about Owen’s alphabet is that some of the vowel symbols are quite intricate. Personally, I would be inclined to make the vowels and most used consonants as simple as practical. More similarity between related vowels could have been tried.
Glancing down the chart, several phonemes appear absent. Owen’s phonetic alphabet comes with several rules that must be learnt. The initial “y-” sound of English is represent for the symbol for /ai/ (“i” as in “file”) when it occurs at the start of a word in front of a vowel. The initial “w-” sound is represented by a “u” symbol where it occurs at the start of a word in front of a vowel.
It also took me some time to realize that “a” as in “ate” represented the sound /ei/ or ay/ey. Interestingly, on the Omniglot page “whale” is spelt with the symbols for “oo-ay-l/ uu-ey-l”.
Owen has distinct symbols for “ar”, “er” and “or” but not for other combinations of vowel with “r”. These symbols might be easier to learn if they looked like the parent vowel joined to the “r” symbol.
The absence of a symbol for “y” necessitates the creation of a symbol for the sound “yu” as in “few”.
Owen’s system distinguishes between near-close back rounded “u” /ʊ/as in “put”, “foot” and “wolf” and that of the open-mid back unrounded (/ʌ/) in “but”, “enough”, “other” or “up”. It also considers “a” as in “all” distinct from “or” as in “for”.
Owen’s Global Alphabet was an interesting attempt in the field. It provides some insight as to what phonemes a conlang will need. Replacing “-ew”  with “yu” and omitting the “-r” vowels gives 15 vowels. There are eight consonant digraphs. With the addition of “w” and “y” there are 18 other consonants.


Simplified Technical English and Conlangs

Regular readers will know that I have an interest in readability. Recently I was reading about Simplified Technical English (STE).
STE essentially has two parts:
• One part is a vocabulary/dictionary of approved words. More on this in a moment.
• The other part is sometimes described as a grammar or set of rules. It may be more productive and accurate to think of it as a style-guide.
The STE suggestions are worth keeping in mind when you are writing. This should particularly be the case when writing instructions or safety warnings.
Using the approved word list is a little more difficult than applying the rules. There are programs that will check text for you, but these appear to be relatively expensive. Unlike for some other controlled languages, so far I have not been able to locate any free or on-line resources that can check that your text is in STE.

STE and Conlangs

What relevance does STE have to conlangs? One of the big challenges to creating a conlang is constructing a vocabulary. Directly translating words from English often proves far less simple than one might first assume. Many English words have multiple meanings, some of them contradictory. The STE vocabulary assigns a single meaning to an approved word. In most cases an approved word can only be used as one part of speech. The approved STE word list and its definitions therefore may be a very useful starting point for creating the Diinlang vocabulary.
The writing rules illuminate other possible issues with Diinlang. Shorter sentences highlight the need for transition phrases that clearly link different sentences and paragraphs. A system to clearly show if a sentence is addressing the subject, object or indirect object of a preceding sentence would be useful.

Managing Capitalization

This is a follow on to my last post, with some ideas to make capitalization in English more user-friendly.
The core of this proposal is for a consistent manner to identify proper nouns and related adjectives. The proposed approach is:
• Treat proper nouns as the names of specific things.
Often this will apply to an individual item, or a very select grouping.
Such proper nouns will be capitalized.
• Treat common nouns as generally applying to categories or sub-groupings.
A common noun may or may not encompass one or more proper nouns.
Common nouns are uncapitalized unless first in a sentence, all the sentence is capitalized or in title case.
This approach still leaves some grey areas and ambiguities.
• For want of other authorities, whether to capitalize such nouns is left to the writer.
Whatever choice is made for each case, the treatment should be applied consistently throughout the document.
• All or None: If judged a proper noun, all of the adjectives with the noun in the noun phrase will be capitalized. Adjectives are only capitalized when with a proper noun.
This approach gives the reader a clear indication of where the proper noun ends.
For long proper noun phrases, title case format may be used.
For ease of reference and accessibility I suggest the capitalization system on the Wikipedia Manual of Style be used. Effectively, for title case, this means capitalize the first and last word. Each word in the clause/phrase is capitalized unless it is:

  • A definite or indefinite article in a non-initial position.
  • A short coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS).
  • A preposition of four letters or less.
  • The word “to” in infinitives.
Proper nouns may be taken to include, but are not limited to:
  • Proper names, including titles and adjectives that are a part of the name.
  • Titles used in place of proper names. Such incidences are most likely to occur in speech. “Can I get a comment, Senator?”, “I need you Granny.” I am uncertain as to whether this applies to third person statements.
  • Names of specific organized religions and their adherents.
  • Names of specific books, films or other works of art or reference.
  • Names of specific companies, brand names, product or model names. Brand names that have become generic terms are uncapitalized.
  • Names of specific geographical features, including the names of individual mountains, rivers, seas, oceans, valleys.
  • Names of specific roads, streets, buildings, cities, towns, villages, regions.
  • Names of specific countries, counties, areas, continents, nations. Specific names derived from such: Italian Coffee, English Muffin.
  • Names of specific nationalities or ethnicities: Asian, Italian, Mexican American, Caucasian, Black, White.
  • Names of specific days, months and named holidays.
  • Names of specific time periods, historical evens and geological eras. Spanish Civil War, Middle Ages, Boxer Rebellion, Jurassic Era.
  • Names of specific planets, moons, stars or other celestial bodies (including the Earth when referred to as a world or planet).
Not usually capitalized:
  • Definite and indefinite articles, unless an integral part of the name: “The Hague”, “The Lord of the Rings”.
  • The names of the seasons, unless personified.
  • The points of the compass and similar terms, unless integral to a name.
  • The designation of centuries: twentieth century, fifteenth century.
  • Common names of animals, plants and other organisms unless they include a proper name. Names of cultivar groups and breeds probably should be capitalized. The latter are often named after regions, anyway.
  • Names of literary or musical genres, unless containing a proper name.
• Scientific names are capitalized at genera-level and higher.
The second half of a species name is never capitalized, even if derived from a proper name.
The subspecies name, if stated, is treated the same as the second part of the species name.
It was once the convention to underline a species name when it was written. In typed format, the convention now seems to be to italicize the species name. Hence, the correct format for a scientific name is Homo sapiens idaltu.
As seems inevitable with English, inconsistencies arise.
In a sentence such as “The army wants to buy more”, the term “the army”, clearly refers to a specific army, such as the US Army or British Army. This would suggest it should be “Army”.
The Wikipedia Manual of Style requires “the university” to be uncapitalized in a similar construction.
This page suggest that a proper noun should be capitalized except when they are used alone later in the paragraph: “We went fishing on the James River. Later, our family joined us at the river.”
This reminds me of how an abbreviation may be used if already introduced in previous text.
Another construction that “feels wrong” is to leave “the pope” uncapitalized.
There may be many kings in the world at any time, but usually only one pope.
When used in the singular, the title refers to a very specific individual, and the title is effectively substituting for a proper name.
The same logic may be applied to “god” when used as a proper name to refer to the Abrahamic diety.

Capital Punishment

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. Personally, I would an advocate “all or nothing” rule that the adjective is not capitalized unless the noun is. Hence: “german sausage”, “italian coffee” and “english muffin”.
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!
In Tutonish, page 55, Molee notes: “thirteen abstract rules of grammar must be studied, as to where to place the capitals, so that only learned grammarians can employ them correctly at all times. this extra time and mental energy is so much taken away from other more needed knowledge.”
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.
Capitalization rules are generally neglected by most conlangs. The only exception that I can think of is Lingua Franca Nova.
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 the suggestions 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 from the Wikipedia Manual of Style.