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moon vs. Moon: A Study in Arrant Pedantry

To capitalize, or not to capitalize? That is the question.

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When you write, do you capitalize the word “Moon?” And by this, I mean Earth’s Moon, Luna, the natural satellite of our home planet. Well, believe it or not, some of the longest, most vociferous, and yes – the dumbest – arguments I’ve ever had were over this issue.

In the preface of my book, The Once and Future Moon, I argued over a decade ago that the Moon was one of the largest satellites in the Solar System, our first destination off the Earth and mankind’s future home and thus, deserved the dignity of capitalization. I proceeded to capitalize the word “Moon” ever afterwards, except when I write for the press, which obstinately insists that it should be “moon” and ruthlessly proceeds to change all my brilliant text.

Why do so many editors insist upon this obnoxious practice? Apparently because the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook says so. To quote the black book of AP style directly:
AP capitalizes the proper names of planets, including Earth, stars, constellations, etc., but lowercases sun and moon.
Uh, OK. I guess that settles that. Ordinarily, I like ex cathedra pronouncements about language (Fowler was famous for them), but usually, they tend to have some reasonable basis in grammatical or linguistic fact. If there is such a basis for the “rule” given above, I don’t know what it is. I can speculate on one.

All of the major bodies of our Solar System have Roman (Latin) names – Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, etc. The only exceptions are the objects Earth, Moon, and Sun, whose names are derived from Germanic languages (the Latin equivalents are Terra, Luna, and Sol, respectively). Interestingly, the AP stylebook says to capitalize the Earth but not the Sun and Moon. My guess is that some classically educated nit-picker who was forced to sit through endless hours on the joys of the ablative absolute in Latin class decided that the Roman-named objects of the universe were worthy of linguistic worship, but the vulgar, barbarian Germanic names given to those other three bodies did not deserve to be capitalized.

I beg to differ. All three words are proper nouns; they refer to definite objects, one of which is home to humanity itself and another that soon will be. If these objects do not deserve capitalization, what does?

Simply put, the AP Stylebook is wrong. When referring to “the Moon” – that is, our Moon, Luna, site of Neil Armstrong’s landing in 1969 – the word should be capitalized. When referring to any moon, such as in “the moons of Jupiter”, it becomes a generic descriptor and hence, should not be capitalized. Our Moon is a world with its own history, one intimately entwined with our own. It has the material and energy resources needed to help us bootstrap a true spacefaring capability. It will one day become a second home for humanity.

After being criticized for ending too many sentences with a preposition, Sir Winston Churchill supposedly responded: “This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” Whether Churchill said this or not (it is disputed, but it certainly sounds like him), it nicely captures my thoughts on this “controversy.”

Now, if we could just get the BBC to stop writing “Nasa” for “NASA”……
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About Paul D. Spudis
Paul D. Spudis

Paul D. Spudis is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. His website can be found at www.spudislunarresources.com. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution or his employer.

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