Reverential capitalization is the practice of capitalizing religious words, particularly pronouns, that refer to a deity or divine being, in cases where the words would not otherwise have been capitalized:
and God calleth to the light 'Day,' and to the darkness He hath called 'Night;' and there is an evening, and there is a morning — day one.— Genesis 1:5, Young's Literal Translation (1862)
In this example, "God" is in capitals because it is, like "Day" or "Night", a noun which is here a proper name, whereas "He" is an example of reverential capitalization, since while proper names are capitalized universally, reverence for any particular divinity—belief therein implied on the part of the author who capitalizes pronouns in reference to such being—is not universal. In short, when pronouns are capitalized which usually are lowercase, this usually implies that the writer personally reveres and regards as a deity the antecedent of that pronoun.
Nouns, which are not proper names, can also be capitalized out of reverence of the entity they refer to. Such examples include "the Lord", "the Father", "the Creator".
For our heart shall reioyce in him: because we haue trusted in his holy name.— Psalms 33:21
In the 17th and 18th centuries, it became common to capitalize all nouns, as is still done in some other Germanic languages such as in German:
By this Time it blew a terrible Storm indeed[...]— Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719
For through him our Heart is glad, since we trust in his holy Name.— Psalms 33:21, Quaker Bible, 1764
In languages that capitalize all nouns, reverential capitalization of the first two letters or the whole word can sometimes be seen. The following is an example from Danish, which capitalized nouns until 1948.
Vi troe paa en eeneste GUD, en almægtig Skaber af alle Ting, saavel synlige som u-synlige, og paa en HErre JEsum Christum, GUds eeneste Søn, fød af Faderen[...] – Ludvig Holberg, Almindelig Kirke-Historie, 1738
(Translation) We believe in the one and only GOD, an almighty Creator of all Things, visible as well as invisible, and in a LOrd JEsus Christ, GOd's only Son, born of the Father[...] – Ludvig Holberg, Almindelig Kirke-Historie, 1738
Note that some instances are in all caps (GUD "GOD"), and some begin with two capital letters (HErre "LOrd", JEsum "JEsus"). Some words that could also be said to refer to an almighty being begin with a single capital (Skaber "Creator", Christum "Christ", Faderen "the Father"), but so do all other nouns (Ting "Things"). This type of reverential capitalization varies within a single sentence and would also be dependent on the author and the publisher of a work.
The convention of capitalizing nouns was abandoned in English, and one of the people who was influential in this was Benjamin Blayney, who produced a 1769 edition of the Bible in which nouns were not capitalized—possibly simply to save space on the printed page.
In the 19th century, it became common to capitalize pronouns referring to the Christian God, in order to show respect:
For in Him doth our heart rejoice, For in His holy name we have trusted.— Psalms 33:21, Young's Literal Translation (1862)
An interesting early case is Handel's 1741 oratorio Messiah, whose printed libretto and published score both use lower case pronouns, but whose holograph conductor's score consistently capitalizes:
…day of His coming … when He appeareth"
In the 20th century this practice became far less common:
For our heart rejoices in him, because we have trusted in his holy name.— Psalms 33:21, World English Bible (1997)
Today there is no widely accepted rule in English on whether or not to use reverential capitalization. Different house styles have different rules given by their style manuals. Reverential capitalization is not to be used, for example, according to the style guidelines set by the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook. It is prescribed, for example, by the US Government Printing Office Style Manual (2008).
This capitalization rule is also customarily applied in Tagalog and other languages of the Philippines, despite being considered nonstandard and inconsistent by purists who contend that this rule is applied only in English.
- Retskrivningsreformen af den 22. marts 1948
- GUd, Holberg Dictionary
- Ludvig Holberg, Almindelig Kirke-Historie, 1738, p. 196
- Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611–2011
- Messiah, HWV 56: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 15e, University of Chicago Press, 2003
- "3.3, Religious Terms". U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 36. Retrieved 2018-11-15.