by Rod D. Martin
January 10, 2016
I’ll admit, it’s been a while since my last English class; but like most of you, I was taught that you should never capitalize the word “Earth” (or for that matter, “Moon” or “Sun”). I know for a fact that my teachers were pretty good, because I knocked the ACT English and the SAT verbal out of the park.*
They were, however, wrong about this.
The rule makes perfect sense, of course, when “earth” is used as a synonym for “soil.” I get that. “I picked up the rich earth” uses the word as a common noun. I suspect that as man presses forth into the Final Frontier, those Biblical uses of “earth” which mean something like “wherever people are found” rather than one specific planet will also prove valid. With these I have no quibble.
But we’re talking about proper nouns here. Earth is a place, as is the Moon: Buzz Aldrin would certainly agree. And while no one especially wants to go to the Sun, the fact that you can go there (at least theoretically) is telling. (Some argue that the real issue is that the proper names for these three bodies are Terra, Luna and Sol, but that is nothing other than Roman cultural imperialism, which as an English speaker and a Protestant I am almost duty bound to reject.)
The rule has its exceptions: you may capitalize “Earth” if it is contained within a list of other celestial bodies which themselves must be capitalized (and it turns out, that list potentially includes absolutely all of them, aside from the three that are of the greatest importance to humans). By this rule, it is proper to write “I like it here on earth,” and indeed improper to do otherwise, even if in the very next phrase you write “especially here in Earth, Texas,” which believe it or not is an actual place.
How did this rule come about? Partly as a result of the King James Bible’s outsized impact on modern English. The King James, which capitalizes neither the words we’re discussing, “Heaven,” “Hell,” nor even pronouns related to God, was published in 1611, more than a century before modern English capitalization rules developed. Dictionary.com helpfully adds that all this may be a throwback to those times in which people believed our world to be separate and fundamentally distinct from the rest of Creation, which is to say that if you’re not capitalizing the name of our planet, you are pretty much a “flat-earther” who still believes “the sun” revolves around “the earth.”
That sums up exactly how I’ve always felt.
I’m not alone in feeling that way. A quick Google search found this complaint on the matter, recorded in Volume 31 of the Indiana School Journal, dated January 1886. Yes, that’s almost half a century before Goddard invented his rocket. So this is not a new discussion. But it’s also not intended primarily as a discussion about grammar.
Earth is a place, and thus “Earth” is a proper noun. It is far from the only place. Thinking about it as though it is the only place limits humanity in ways that are increasingly foolish and inappropriate. We are leaving this cradle of civilization, and should be: as Tsiolkovsy said, one cannot stay in the cradle forever.
To recognize that we live in a very specific place forces us to recognize that there are other places, and that it might be valuable to go to them (for Christians reading this, that is the essence of the Creation Mandate). It requires that we recognize that Earth really is special, thus enhancing our sensitivity toward our responsibilities of stewardship, without allowing us to think of Earth as though it were the whole Universe. It expands our ability to problem-solve, and how we think of ourselves and the rest of Creation. It opens up possibilities we would never otherwise consider and encourages our own creativity in response. It adds perspective, and with it wisdom, two of our most vital needs and two of God’s defining characteristics, attributes we desperately ought to seek and to imitate.
Yes, capitalization may be a small matter. But life is largely a collection of small matters, subtleties we rarely consider but which collectively define us and the way in which we think and live.
This is one of those. And as we enter a new era, like that in which the first explorers began to leave the shores of Iberia, go past Madeira, the Canaries and the Azores and venture around the Cape of Good Hope and even to the New World, we need to alter our thinking as our forebears once did.
And when we do, we will soon stop speaking of “the world” or “the World,” but rather of “the Worlds.”
*Oh, and yes, I know that there are also perfectly good rules prohibiting the introduction of sentences with conjunctions or the conclusion of them with prepositions (as I’ve done above and do frequently on this site). As to those clearly correct standards, I can only say that as I age, I am increasingly informal and disobedient. Or as Churchill is claimed to have said, “this is the sort of errant nonsense up with which I will not put.”