Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Earth and Moon

A reader wrote to me today, "Earth and Moon should always be capitalized; and if your line editors are sloppy, then tell them so!" (In Mindscan, much of which does take place on Earth's natural satellite, I made a conscious choice not to capitalize "moon.")

My response:

On the capitalization of Earth, Moon, etc., we'll have to have a discussion. I agree on Earth, as it is the commonly accepted proper name of our planet in English and there are no other "Earths."* But note that Analog magazine (and analogy!) can take this to ridiculous lengths: Analog's style guide is to capitalize: Earth, Moon, Sun, Galaxy (when referring to our own), and even Universe.

Actually, one could argue that there are no other proven universes, and so capitulate to Analog's arcane point about capitalizing it, but there are lots of other moons, galaxies, and suns, and so I might argue that all of these phrases are correct:

Earth's moon
Earth's moon Luna
Luna, Earth's moon

Earth's sun
Earth's sun Sol
Sol, Earth's sun

Earth's galaxy
Earth's galaxy, the Milky Way
The Milky Way, Earth's galaxy

Earth's universe
Earth's universe Fred
Fred, the universe containing Earth

Still, by analogy:
My house is in the valley.
Which valley?
The San Fernando Valley.

(Yes, lots of people would capitalize "valley" in the first sentence -- but lots of others wouldn't.)

There's also the question of whether "solar system" refers generically to any system of stars and planets, or specifically to our own, since "solar" is derived from the proper name of our sun (as used in SF contexts, anyway).

But, to me, "Solar system" and "Solar System," look wrong, although I'll accede to "Sol system" (since we never say "Alpha Centaurian system" but always "Alpha Centauri system"); in general, I prefer "solar system," and consider the argument that the term should only be used to refer to our own (a) pedantic, and (b) to fly in the face of already well-established common usage.

* I said there were no other Earths, but, in fact, in discussions of exoplanets -- those outside our solar system -- we do routinely refer to "hot Jupiters" and "other Earths," but that's a very specialized and quite recent usage, and shouldn't dictate how we generally refer to our planet, although it's interesting that the long-in-common-use term "the Earth" -- meaning the Earth, our Earth -- might need to be retained, instead of the definite article falling by the wayside as such things often do over time ...

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At December 11, 2007 10:38 AM , Blogger Michael A. Burstein said...

All this time I've been wondering what the name of our universe was! Now I know -- Fred! :-)

At December 11, 2007 3:50 PM , Blogger Jim said...

Hi Rob,

And all of that makes complete sense to me. I'd capitalize Universe only when Universe is used like this:
"Jill's Universe was turned upside down."

"Astronomers have always thought the universe is expanding."

The first example (imo) means Jill's world view (micro and macro) The second example is a generic term.

Is the above usage correct?

At December 11, 2007 5:15 PM , Anonymous Booberfish said...

That seems to fit pretty well with how astroners use those terms as well, in my experience. The one thing to note is that I've never heard "solar system" in an astronomy context except to refer to our own system. In any other case, it's called a "planetary system". Solar always refers to our own star. For example, solar mass is the mass of our sun, while stellar mass is the mass of some other star. Stellar masses are usually reported in units of solar mass.

I've also sometimes run into situations where universe and Universe refer to two slightly different things, but most of the time the distinction is made less ambiguously with explicit adjectives.

At December 12, 2007 11:10 AM , Anonymous Marah said...

I agree with everything you said, except that I would capitalize "the Valley" when referring specifically to the San Fernando Valley. It feels like a shortened form of its proper name.

At December 12, 2007 11:46 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Jim, I wouldn't capitalize "universe" in "Jill's Universe."

Marah, good point ... but the following comparable exchange would feel wrong to me with the first "church" capitalized:

"I'll meet you at the church?"

"Which church?"

"Northminster United Church."

At December 12, 2007 4:25 PM , Blogger Jim said...

I see your point Rob, I tried looking in my copy of Strunk & White but there's nothing about Universe/universe.

About the church thing if it's just 2 people and they go to the same church all the time, "I'll meet you at the church." wouldn't that be acceptable? :-)

At December 12, 2007 9:54 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Checked the unabridged OED today. Its entry has a lowercase "m" on "Moon," as does every single one of the citations it provides for use of the term. (The only "Moon" listed is a man by that surname.)

At December 13, 2007 4:45 AM , Anonymous Marah said...

I don't think those exchanges really are comparable. There are hundreds (or possibly thousands) of churches in California, and no particular church is popularly known as "the Church."

Just like your example, if you refer to "the church," you'll be asked "Which church?". But had I told you while we were at LACon that my uncle lives in the Valley, you would have known that I meant the San Fernando Valley without having to ask. Hence I consider "the Valley" to be a shortened form of "the San Fernando Valley," and not a reference to the nearest valley.

At December 13, 2007 7:06 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Yeah, you're right, Marah. The San Fernando Valley was an ill-chosen example on my part, because it is so famously "the Valley" -- as in "Valley Girl," the movie "2 Days in the Valley," etc.

But if I'd said "I live in the valley, and you asked "Which valley?" and I replied "the Credit River Valley" -- which IS a proper noun, as you can see here; it's an area near my home -- should I go back and capitalize the "v" in my original declaration that I live in the valley?

Anyway, my whole point with my original correspondent is that the "Moon/moon" thing is not a slam-dunk decided issue, but wide open for debate. :)

At December 13, 2007 2:59 PM , Anonymous Brian L. Raney said...

Gee, I wonder if they'll ever come out with a chocolate bar named after Fred? They have one for the Milky Way. ;-)

At December 14, 2007 2:53 AM , Anonymous marah said...

Oh, no, I agree completely. You'd say that you live "in the valley" if you were referring to any other valley.

Moon/moon is interesting because our moon is named "the Moon." Other planets' moons have different names, so it's more obvious.

I'm one of those odd people who enjoys discussing grammar. :)

At January 07, 2008 7:31 PM , Anonymous Alan said...

The name of our moon isn't 'Luna' but 'Moon' and is properly called 'Moon' with a capial 'M.'

At January 07, 2008 7:44 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Interesting assertion, Alan. Upon what do you base it? Anyway, good luck in finding anyone in Paris, or Rome, or Beijing, or Tokyo, or Islamabad who agrees that it's "Moon." Also, if it's "Moon," why do so many English speakers put a "the" in front of it?


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