Hell to Pay with English Grammar

Posted by on Jan 25, 2011 in Blog | 4 comments

Hell to Pay with English Grammar

Look at the word hell. Surprised it’s not capitalized, even though it’s a proper noun— a real place with a name, in the same way that Applebee’s or Route 66 are real places with names? Few beyond devotees of grammar and punctuation rules are aware that in English, “terms for divine dwelling places, ideal states, places of divine punishment, and the like, are usually lowercased.” That’s the Chicago Manual of Style talking, the non-technical writer’s Bible (and Bible, by the way, is capitalized, falling handily under the classification of a “highly revered work”).

So maybe hell doesn’t deserve to be capitalized, being what it is. But how about heaven, or nirvana? According to rumor these are fabulous places, worthy of having some attention paid them. Yet in that second sentence of this paragraph they are symbolized by mere lowercased words, helpless in the clutches of current language conventions as though they were ordinary nouns, as though they were no more important than words like sludge or gusset. Am I to understand that in the estimation of the good editors at Chicago, abstract yet worthy religious locales we can’t pinpoint with a GPS device don’t weigh in with the heft of earthly establishments like the aforementioned Applebee’s, just because Applebee’s happens to feature a wide selection of sizzling entrees? The answer is yes; the current rules that govern our language must be followed. And don’t go thinking you can break them without consequences. Just try putting out one measly sentence like: Dawn broke brightly over Hell that morning. I guarantee that within minutes, the word will be out all over Facebook that you are a dundermuffin.

In the same way that customs have changed over the centuries regarding the utilization of public spittoons or the appropriateness of sporting a purple mohawk in a board meeting, language conventions are pertinent only to people in the time and place in which they are used. And language has changed greatly since the time of, say, Shakespeare, when people were likely to spit out, “Fie thou scurvy knave”, and think nothing of leaving out the exclamation point after fie. Later, in the children’s story Peter Rabbit, author Beatrix Potter had the audacity to end a sentence with a colon (you know, the two crazy little dots: :), and no one blinks an eye. For crying out loud, any fifth grader is smart enough to know that a colon is used to introduce elements illustrating what precedes it, not to end sentences. Apparently not in Bea’s day.

And pick up any novel by Jane Austen (you know, Pride and Prejudice, etc.) to discover entire paragraphs that consist of one long and winding road, striking fresh life into the term “run-on sentence”. These marathon word groupings are full of Austen’s polite Regency characters possessed of a disposable income that allows them to spend their lives taking tea or strolling in the shrubbery, often in the throes of ruminating over important matters like “overthrown schemes” and “premeditated contempt”. These are concepts we dullards of the twenty-first century, working eight hours a day, or slack-jawed in front of Dancing with the Stars week after week, are unable to comprehend.

The average Austen sentence is also heavily larded with copious commas, acres of em dashes (one of these long things that signals an abrupt break in the flow of the sentence: —), labyrinths of semicolons (the period that can’t make up its mind: ;) and so many italicized words that on faith alone we must assume they resonated with the language sensibilities of early nineteenth century Brits. And oh, my personal favorite: Austen loves to mix her pause punctuation. When was the last time you saw a semicolon in a contemporary sentence followed by an em dash before the next clause leaps into action? Such as: Like dude;—whatup? We cringe at such a combination, yet Austen did this all the time and is commemorated in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey for her trouble.

We have to assume Austen knew her English. The question is, do we? Here’s one to ponder for next time: should the question read, Whose purple cabbage is this? or Who’s purple cabbage is this? Fie! Only scurvy knaves will get it wrong.


  1. Bravo;!–Your post has liberated, me, to use punctuation most freely::: for no convention has not been without its laudable Antagonist/s and you”ve left unspecified both the price and currency due hell for its use (EOM)

  2. I enjoy Jean’s entertaining writing style and different way of looking at any subject, even something like punctuation and grammar! Even people who are not interested in punctuation will enjoy this read…

  3. Yes, of course hell does not deserve the capitalization it seems so intent on having; but, have you had the great pleasure of visiting Hell, Michigan or Hell, Norway? Surprisingly, Hell does freeze over on a regular basis, sometime in late October.

    • That’s hilarious! I had no idea earthly Hells existed, and both in colder climes. A little geographical irony to brighten our lives.

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