HONORING HONORIFICS

Let’s take this week to go after a certain copy editing bugaboo that I have found extremely common in both fantasy and science fiction. It’s another of those seemingly impenetrable rules governing the proper use of an initial cap.

An initial cap is when the first letter of a word is capitalized, regardless of its place in a sentence. Rules for things like proper names of people and places are easy enough to remember, and I won’t go back into railing against initial caps intended to make a common noun seem more important, but in the case of honorifics, I see authors just all over the place in how they’re handled, quite often inconsistently applying caps within a single paragraph, much less a single novel.

An honorific is used in place of a name to infer respect or high station. We don’t use them a lot in contemporary American society, but all the time in medieval-flavored fantasy.

Going to our old friend, The Chicago Manual of Style(16th Edition),* we find a firmly stated, unambiguous rule:

8.32

Honorifics. Honorific titles and respectful forms of address are capitalized in any context.

 

Her (His, Your) Majesty; Her (His, Your) Royal Highness

Your (His, Her) Excellency

but

sir, ma’am

my lord, my lady

I cherry-picked a few honorifics I see a lot from their longer list of examples. Combining lessons already learned regarding initial caps of ranks and titles, let’s see this in action in a fantasy story:

 

“Approach, Captain,” the queen commanded.

After taking two steps forward, Captain Galen sank to one knee before the beautiful Queen Bronwyn. “I fear I have bad news to report, Your Majesty,” the captain said.

“I am happy to see you alive, at least, sir,” Bronwyn said with a false smile.

“I,” a voice from behind the throne growled, “am not so happy!” Lady MacBetty strode out onto the dais, twirling a silver-bladed dagger in her left hand.

Galen scowled but said, “Good evening, my lady.”

“Take your good evening and shove—” the lady began.

“Enough,” the queen interrupted. “Now, Captain, what of the wars?”

“Twenty thousand men dead at the hands of Duke Jaerik, Your Majesty,” Galen reported, “including His Excellency the grand vizier.”

 

I threw as much in there as I could to show how all these work together.

Now consider that, if your worldbuilding includes honorifics not in Chicago’s list of examples, the rule still holds:

 

“Approach, Spearmaster,” the matriarcha commanded.

After taking two steps forward, Spearmaster Galen sank to one knee before the beautiful Matriarcha Bronwyn. “I fear I have bad news to report, Your Momentousness,” the spearmaster said.

“I am happy to see you alive, at least, sirrah,” Bronwyn said with a false smile.

“I,” a voice from behind the throne growled, “am not so happy!” Anne MacBetty strode out onto the dais, twirling a silver-bladed dagger in her left hand.

Galen scowled but said, “Good evening, sirress.”

“Take your good evening and shove—” the noblewoman began.

“Enough,” the matriarcha interrupted. “Now, Spearmaster, what of the wars?”

“Twenty thousand men dead at the hands of Imperator Jaerik, Your Momentousness,” Galen reported, “including His Pomposity the grand wizard.”

 

Same rule, different words/different worlds.

Yes?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

* And yes, I know the 17th edition is out, but I just haven’t gotten around to ordering that yet.

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to HONORING HONORIFICS

  1. Deborah Jay says:

    Reblogged this on deborahjay and commented:
    This is so helpful for those of us writing in genres that regularly use honorifics 😀

  2. JM Williams says:

    A very important topic. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mark Henwick says:

    But also be aware when using titles as names. Captain Galen is a captain, and my doctor is called Doctor Johnson, but Doctor Who is the Doctor.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Yes, Doctor Who is the Doctor–but you want to avoid that initial cap on a common noun in place of a name thing from now on, right? Right!

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