The Titanic and pet peeves

By Katharine Swan On Monday, December 17, 2007 At 11:58 PM



Michael took today off work, so we decided to see the Titanic exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. We've been wanting to see it for some time, but just never was able to make the time... Until now.

We both loved the exhibit, but an excessive number of errors in the signs reminded me of a post Deb Ng recently published on her blog, about writers' pet peeves. Here's a pet peeve I apparently overlooked in the discussion: glaring errors by large companies who should know better (or be able to hire a copywriter who does).

The error that annoyed me the most was also the most frequently repeated: the capitalization of words that shouldn't be capitalized. For instance, "ship" was almost always capitalized, in contexts such as, "Passengers on board the Ship..." (I completely made that up, because I can't recall any of the exact sentences, but that's the sort of usage we're talking about here.)

Misuse of capitalization drives me nuts, perhaps partly because my old boss thought his technical writers should capitalize Important Words and Terms; the result was that almost every other word was capitalized (not to mention bolded or highlighted in red, blue, or green text).

According to the AP's Stylebook,

"In general avoid unnecessary capitals. Use a capital letter only if you can justify it by one of the principles listed here." Those are proper nouns, proper names, popular names, derivatives, setences, compositions, and titles.

It's not just the Associated Press, either. People just don't write like that anymore.

I thought perhaps they were trying to write in a style appropriate to the period, but personally, I think if that was their intent they should have put the signs in a period font, too. Otherwise it just looks like a mistake. (And anyway, I'm not at all certain the capitalization of subjects was common in 1912 — I've seen it in the literature of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, but not the 20th century.)

The impression that the capitalization was a mistake wasn't helped by several other mistakes in grammar and punctuation, such as "it's" instead of "its," and a missing period on a rather large (read: highly visible) sign.

The exhibit was fantastic, but I was still annoyed by the mistakes, particularly the rampant over-capitalization. The moral of the story? The museum needs a copywriter like me to make sure things like that don't happen!

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Katharine Swan is a full-time freelance writer with more than 5 years of professional writing experience. In addition to maintaining several personal blogs, she writes a variety of online marketing materials for clients, including company blogs, articles, and press releases. In her free time, she spends time with her horse, reads, and writes fiction.

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