Several years ago, I held a position at Nipissing University in Canada that involved working with students to improve their writing skills. At the time, all students admitted to the publicly funded university had to take a writing competency test, and I typically used the student’s test as a starting point for our work together. The test required them to write a short essay on one of three given topics, and it was graded by two members of the English Department. Students who failed the test had to take a writing course, and all students had to pass the test before they graduated. All very straightforward, I thought. Until I saw, in one of the student’s essays, “his word” corrected to “His Word” by one of the graders.
I can accept a capital on “God” because the word is being used as a name, and names are generally capitalized. (Though I do find it rather presumptuous to appropriate a common noun. It’s also a bit coercive: to use a common noun without an article is to imply there’s only one. The claim “Cat is happy” demands the question “Which cat?” unless you think there’s only one. So when the rest of us want to refer to the Christian god, because we must say “God” instead of using a real name like “Zeus” or “Hela,” we are unwillingly implying the same belief.)
And I can accept capitals on The Bible, as well as italics, because the words refer to the title of a book, and such words are generally capitalized as well as italicized.
But what’s the rationale for capitalizing “His Word”? It was suggested to me, when I questioned the marking committee, that “his word” was being used to refer to The Bible and so, as a title, should be capitalized. Well, first, then it should also be italicized; oddly, this wasn’t mentioned. Second, we generally don’t accept substitute titles for other books; for example, we would not accept The Dictionary for The Concise Oxford Dictionary–at least, not at the university level.
Furthermore, I suspect that the student meant “his word” not as an equivalent to The Bible, but as an equivalent to “his teaching.” So again, what’s the rationale for capitals? With two exceptions, no other pronoun is ever capitalized.
The first exception is that pronouns are capitalized when they refer to royalty—for example, “His Majesty.” I suspect that this treatment is meant to show respect. I, for one, don’t respect someone who is in a position of power and wealth merely by an accident of birth. And for our language rules to impose such a display of respect is completely unjustified.
The second exception is “I.” This one is unjustified on the grounds of inconsistency alone: no other subject pronoun is capitalized in the normal course of things. To make “I” an exception is to be egocentric as well as inconsistent.
Since both exceptions are then, to my mind, unjustified, neither, to my mind, supports capitalization in the instance under consideration. So much for the “his” in “his word.”
As for “word” (or ‘teaching” or “messages” or whatever), it doesn’t belong to any class of nouns usually capitalized (names of people, countries, cities, months, and so on.). Case closed.
So “His Word” seems to be an exception to the rules. And on what basis is this exception made? Well, it seems to me that “His Word” is meant to designate some special status, some special respect. It’s a sign of worship, pure and simple. And, as I suggested when I considered “His Majesty,” language has no business legislating opinions of value.
More specifically, worship has no place in our grammatical rules. It especially has no place in the grammatical rules taught in public schools. Jewish schools can teach their kids to write “G-d” and Christian schools can teach their kids to write “His Word”–but neither should be stipulated as a common rule of grammar, and students in public schools should not be “corrected” if they don’t express these religious opinions through their spelling and capitalization.
Nor should such rules be in any grammar book not identified as a Christian grammar book. Lamentably, five out of five grammar texts that I checked (at the “suggestion” of the aforementioned marking committee) listed as a rule that names of deities and other religious names and terms be capitalized. However, in three at least, capitalizing the pronoun was presented as optional.
It’s one thing to impose religious belief in public education, which is not only contrary to the view that a just society is one that separates church and state, but also contrary to the view that public education is committed to the pursuit of knowledge, not superstition.
It’s another and far more insidious, thing to entrench religious belief in our common language. We’ve exposed the sexism rooted in our language, and we have managed to begin to make changes. It’s past time to do the same for the religionism rooted in our language. Just as b. c. (Before Christ) has given way to bce (Before the Common Era), let’s make “His Word” and the like equally anachronistic.