Grammar blasphemy

Now that Dave has drawn my attention to that Salon article saying please stop spelling “God” as “god” I feel like telling the author, Richard Eskow, my reason for disliking the automatic “God” as opposed to “god.”

Please, please, stop writing “god” in lowercase form.

I get it. You don’t believe in a supreme being. That’s fine with me. What anybody believes or doesn’t believe is their call. You may believe that the world would be a better place without organized religion. Having seen organized religion in action, I’m inclined to say you may be right. You may believe that even private, reflective, personal religion is harmful, although I don’t see that myself.

Notice he didn’t say “You don’t believe in The Supreme Being.”

The reason he didn’t do that is the same as the reason I spell “God” “god” when it’s not too confusing. (I don’t always do it, because sometimes it is confusing.)

I understand why some atheists might want to write “god” instead of “God.” If you believe that the word describes a human phenomenon rather than a genuine and existent deity, it might seem appropriate to use the lowercase form. But it’s not.  If you are referring to the singular and all-powerful deity of monotheistic tradition, you are using a proper name. That means the capital “G” is a must.

No. Here’s why: the thing being named is too various and flexible and differently-described by different people or in different contexts to have a proper name. Giving it a proper name conveys an air of reality and familiarity that “god” should not have. Every sighting of a “God” gives another little layer of acceptance of the actuality of the putative person named, even to people who on a conscious level don’t believe in it. It’s merely a custom, and it’s one we’re allowed to break.

To be sure, there will continue to be many opportunities to use the word in lowercase form. The phrase “belief in gods” is punctuated correctly. So is “belief in a monotheistic god.” But the phrase “belief in god” is not correct, no matter what you do or don’t believe.

You’ve said it a thousand times, and I get it: You don’t believe in capital-G God any more than I believe in Tinkerbell. That doesn’t change anything. (See what I did there? I don’t believe in an entity named “Tinkerbell.” But since it is the proper name of a, yes, fictional character, I capitalized it.)

Ah yes, but “Tinkerbell” is a fictional character, and recognized as such. So are Hamlet and Lear and Emma Woodhouse and Thea Kronborg, but “God” is not – because of lacking the recognized as such part. Talking about god as God makes it more concrete and matter-of-fact and normalized; we shouldn’t do that.

The true nature of creation may be in dispute, but the proper usage in this case is not. Webster’s Dictionary tells us that a “god” is “a spirit or being that has great knowledge, strength, power, etc.” while “God” is “the perfect and all-powerful spirit or being … worshipped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims …”

One is a noun. The other is a name. If it weren’t a name, it would be necessary to use a different sentence construction, as in: “They forced the sergeant to swear to the god,” or, “Is the god good?”

Indeed, and that would be better. It would be better because it would make it clearer what everyone was talking about.

And by the way we know what the dictionary meaning is. We know it’s not standard to call it “god.” That’s the point.

The atheist/religionist debate concerns nothing less than the fundamental nature of the cosmos. It involves issues like the fundamental ground of being, life after death, the soul, and the origin of all existence. If anybody wants to argue those things, be my guest. But now we’re talking about grammar.  When you don’t capitalize a proper name like God’s, you’re violating a fundamental principle of grammar.

Don’ One, we’re allowed to violate putative fundamental principles of grammar; two, we’re all the more allowed when we do it for a reason; three, it’s not even a fundamental principle of grammar anyway; four, it’s not a proper name like other proper names because it can refer to anything and everything, and definitely not only the Webster’s definition; five, e.e. cummings; six, bell hooks; seven, don’t be silly.


  1. says

    My standard is: capitalize proper names. When used as a proper name, I’ll write God. Far more often, I am referring to a class of entities, in which case a capital letter is inappropriate. I see no reason to get upset or go on a rant if someone else uses a different standard.

    If this is the sort of thing that gets Eskow’s panties in a bunch, the only response I can make is #FirstWorldProblems.

  2. says

    What this is really about, is that some people are offended if we use a small “g”. You know who they are. They are the same people as those who are offended if you use “Xmas” or if you say “happy holidays”.

    I don’t go out of my way to offend such people. But I also don’t go out of my way to avoid offending them.

  3. tulse says

    I try to avoid the issue by referring to “the Christian god “. This phrasing means there is no confusion about the term being a proper name, and it also is a helpful reminder that the Christian account of the divine is just one among many other views. I find it’s a very useful tool in maintaining conceptual parity between Christianity and others pantheons, and thus avoid implicitly importing cultural assumptions. For example, asking the question “Does the Christian god exist?” reads very differently than asking “Does god exist?”

  4. says

    I agree with tulse. There are definitely times that the word refers to a specific putative being, just as “Allah” does. Yet I don’t really see the argument against capitalizing Allah even though it serves the same function in Arabic. If you don’t want to appear to be granting respect to a deity you don’t believe in, refer to “a god” or “gods” generically and avoid the issue altogether.

  5. Brian E says

    #2 Neil Rickert

    They are the same people as those who are offended if you use “Xmas” or if you say “happy holidays”.

    I don’t get his, unless we attribute it to ignorance. The X in Xmas is meant to be the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of Χρηστοσ, you know, Christ. Which is the first part of the compound Christmas….strange.

  6. Daryl Carpenter says

    Perhaps Christians should call their god Yahweh. I don’t think there’s much doubt this should be capitalised. Granted, it’s not the only word for God in the bible but it’s probably the most common. My impression is that Christians wouldn’t be so keen on the idea, revealing as it may do the tribalistic and historically particular origins of Israelite religion. After all, Yahweh was originally one of the many sons of Elohim (the main god) and part of a polythesitic pantheon. However, these are things most Christians (and Jews) would rather not think about. Better to stick with the generic ‘God.’

  7. says

    I’ll vary it depending on context, but I never, ever capitalize pronouns when referring to it. And also depending on context, I’ll refer to a monotheistic god as “it” or “ze” (or “ze’s” variables) because a gendered monotheistic deity makes no friggin’ sense. I’ll refer to it as “her” though if the person I’m talking to is particularly misogynistic. With the polytheistic gods I will gender appropriately because they do present as mostly binary gendered and do procreate with each other. I was going to say they procreate the same as humans, but Zeus sprang to mind as a prime example of one who doesn’t.

  8. says

    I may be wrong on this and please correct me if I am wrong but it is my understanding that referring to the supreme being of the bible as god is as a description of what he is not his proper name. He is “the god”, he does have a proper name I believe (not sure if it is Yahweh or one of the others) But the tradition was originally to not use it but substitute traditional reference name or simply describe what he is as in the lord god, the almighty god, etc. which is how it comes down to christianity. It would be like people capitalizing the A when they refer to me as in “did you see what that Asshole said.” I have always taken the tradition of capitalizing god as a matter of assigning special respect not of it being a proper name. That seems to make it appropriate to use the lower case if you are declining to show that respect.

  9. Anthony K says

    I generally do what Gregory in Seattle (#1) does. Capitalize it if it’s used as a proper name. But I’m trying to get out of the habit of referring to the Christian deity with the generic ‘God’, as per Tulse’s excellent comment (#3).

    Sure, we capitalize Tinkerbell. That’s her proper name. We don’t call her Fairy. We don’t call Richard Eskow Human, at least not in the third person as a proper name. (I might use “Man”, if I were writing to him personally, as in “Hey Man, your article was stupid.” I suppose I might write “God” if I were writing to Yahweh on account of some shitty article he’d written. But not when writing about him.)

  10. Holms says

    I for one prefer to structure a sentence such that the word “god” is quite unambiguously lacking a capital.

    Also it occurs to me that using grammar-based arguments to encourage the “God” capitalisation should be directing those same arguments towards those christians that insist on capitalising he, him, etc. when referring to Jehova. Strangely, that request appeared to be absent.

  11. luzclara says

    This guy is so wrong in so many places. However, the wrong that grinds my ass is calling an orthographic convention a ” fundamental principle of grammar, ” putative or not. A serious use of “grammar” includes both spoken and written forms. And we don’t put capital letters on the fronts of the names we utter. The use of G on the front of the word god is simply an artifact of history and a written language convention.

    PS Noun is the big category and “names” form a smaller category within nouns. Remember that incomprehensible business about “a noun is a person place or thing?” Good Night Nurse. What a doody head. Why does Salon even care?

  12. Brian E says

    I don’t know if this helps but in Jordan Sobel’s ‘Logic and Theism’

    2.5 St. Thomas Aquinas held that ‘God’, since it is an ‘appellative name’ that signifies ‘the divine nature’ in the thing that possesses it, is not a proper name…The opposition is, I think unnecessary. A name can be a proper name, and signifying or expressive. ‘God’ is such a name. Hasker Agrees: “‘God’,” he writes, while a proper name, “expresses our concept of God”

  13. Brian E says

    PS Noun is the big category and “names” form a smaller category within nouns.

    I’d disagree, a noun is a name. It can name a person (personal noun), a place or a thing (concept). But its function is to name.

  14. Vicki says

    If it’s a grammatical point, people wouldn’t mind or be flustered if we said “I don’t believe in gods” or answered “Do you believe in God?” with “I don’t believe in any gods” or “there are no gods” or “What do you mean by ‘god’?” or “I don’t believe in any gods, not even yours.”

  15. says

    You want a big G for your god? Give me a big definition of your god; “fundamental ground of being” is not even close.

    Please define (G)od in no uncertain terms, or you can just forget even the smallest benefit of doubt that your one-of-billions-of-gods deserves a cap.

    Actually, one of the best proofs that God does not exist is the inability of “believers” to adequately explain just what they mean when they say “God”.

  16. Sili says

    e.e. cummings

    If you want to demonstrate how you break the rules by writing “e.e. cummings”, then why not go the whole hog and write “Bell Hooks” as well?

  17. says

    #5 Brian E:

    I don’t get his, unless we attribute it to ignorance.

    Oh, yes, it is ignorance. I guess you have not come across angry rants about “Xmas”.

  18. says

    I might be in the minority here, but when I refuse to use a big “G” when referring to any god, it’s very deliberate. And I really don’t care who it bothers.

    It doesn’t matter if I’m writing on Facebook, the FtB Comments, other online forums I belong to, or my own blog, if my choice bothers you, don’t read my stuff. Problem solved.

  19. says

    Thousands of mythical gods have been claimed throughout history, all with an equal amount of evidence for their existence (i.e. none). I usually try to write it as plural lowercase. Written singular, the word no more deserves capitalization than “her”, “him” or “it”. And preferably in quotations, to show that I (you?) don’t take it seriously.

    Whenever someone gets touchy about the lowercase spelling, I’ll ask the person, “Which ‘god’ are you talking about? Zoroaster? Freya? Apollo? Quetzalcoatl? Shiva? You’ll have to be a little more specific, not arrogantly assume everyone believes in or knows about your mythology / cult.”

  20. Brian E says

    You’ll have to be a little more specific, not arrogantly assume everyone believes in or knows about your mythology / cult.”

    To be honest, I don’t usually captilize god when referring to the Abrahamic deity. But also to be honest, if somebody I know who is a Jew, Christian, or a Muslim says ‘I believe in God’, I think it a bit obtuse to say ‘which deity do you mean?’ It’s obviously some variant of the Abrahamic deity. Now, there probably are as many conceptions of that deity as there are believers, so it hasn’t narrowed it down much, but it’s still obviously not a Greek, Persian, Indian or South American deity, even if those religions borrowed beliefs such as monotheism from the Persians….

    Speaking of monotheism, which we weren’t, is there really such a thing? Christians believe in supernatural entities such as angels, demons and eternal souls, all of which meet the definitional requirments of a minor or demi-god. Muslims do too. I’m not so sure about Jewish conceptions of angels, but probably. So, all those religions believe in heno-theism, one super-boss god with lots of demi-gods.

  21. says

    Brian E (#21) –

    I think it a bit obtuse to say ‘which deity do you mean?’ It’s obviously some variant of the Abrahamic deity.

    It’s not “obtuse”, I know exactly which fiction they are talking about. I’m shoving it back in their faces, saying theirs isn’t very impressive nor deserving of my respect.

    Anyway, they’re not demanding respect for their religion. They’re demanding obedience, which they’ll definitely never get from me.

  22. says

    This may seem like a pedantic point, but E. E. Cummings didn’t spell his name without caps, rather that was his publisher’s gimmick, and a lot of people nowadays are going back to capitalizing it the way he preferred. It’s not entirely pedantic because with actual people who have actual preferences about their names, you can respect their wishes and spell it the way they want. But nonexistent gods neither have wishes, nor, like straightforward fiction, do they have an author’s authority setting their spelling… so nothing really to prevent you coming up with your own way of spelling it!

  23. Brian E says

    #22 one definition of obtuse is ‘(annoyingly) insensitive’, which I reckon a few believers would find your feigned ignorance. i don’t mind me a bit of iconoclasm, so have at it. I don’t ask which God in that situation, nor am I giving obedience.

    #23, it’s Trevor, isn’t it?

  24. says

    @Kevin Kehres #23 – Barak Obama’s last name isn’t President, but we still capitalize Mr. President when addressing him. There is a very long standing custom in English where titles that take the place of a proper name are treated as proper names.

    @Kamaka #15 – Something similar has long been my response when someone tries to discuss religion with me: “Which god, specifically, out of the dozens in current use?” After all, Christians cannot even agree with one another.

  25. says

    People who *really* believe this stuff write “G-d”, not “God.”

    The proper name of the abrahamic god is YHWH, anyway. If anything, “god” is just the job it holds, not a name. As Gregory points out in #25, sometimes we capitalize the position if it’s important enough. (Which I don’t see “god” rising to.)

    Back to my dinner now. It’s a lovely piece of fish, good enough for Jehovah.

  26. says

    There is a type of entity called a “god” of which one of the most famous exemplars is called “God.” If I am referring to any entities of that type, I’ll write “god.” If I mean the specific entity with that name, I’ll capitalize it.

    “I don’t believe in God” is true, but needlessly specific.

  27. Kimpatsu says

    But since it is the proper name of a, yes, fictional character, I capitalized it.
    But “god” is not a proper noun. The name of the Xian god is Yahweh.

  28. John Morales says


    But “god” is not a proper noun. The name of the Xian god is Yahweh.


    Entities may have more than one name, but for any unique entity, to name it is to employ a proper noun.

    (Or, if referring to a deity in general, ‘god’ is fine; when referring to a monotheistic deity, ‘God’ is proper)

  29. Brian E says

    But “god” is not a proper noun. The name of the Xian god is Yahweh.

    Is there a deed-poll type arrangement for name change? I mean Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, both names capitalized, why couldn’t Yahweh also call himself God?

  30. John Morales says


    To quote Wikipedia:

    A distinction is normally made in current linguistics between proper nouns and proper names. By this strict distinction, because the term noun is used for a class of single words (tree, beauty), only single-word proper names are proper nouns: Peter and Africa are both proper names and proper nouns; but Peter the Great and South Africa, while they are proper names, are not proper nouns.

  31. sonofrojblake says

    why couldn’t Yahweh also call himself God?

    For the same reason I can’t call myself “Man”. Which is to say obviously I can, but to do so would seem massively presumptuous. It would imply fatuously that I’m the only one, or maybe the best one or something, and therefore would say a great deal about me, none of it complimentary.

    And anyone who refers to Yahweh/Jehovah/whatever as “God” is doing exactly that – implying their imaginary friend is the only one, or the best one. And it says a great deal about them, none of it complimentary.

  32. brucegorton says

    John Morales

    What about the sun? I mean when referring to it we are referring to a singular entity, should we capitalise it and say the Sun?

  33. John Morales says


    brucegorton, yes.

    E.g. :

    Once regarded by astronomers as a small and relatively insignificant star, the Sun is now thought to be brighter than about 85% of the stars in the Milky Way, most of which are red dwarfs.

  34. says

    That capital-G rule comes from a time when only one god was taken at all seriously in the English-speaking world, the god of the Bible. All other gods were just plain FALSE (including Allah). The rule was appropriate for those times, but times and attitudes have, thankfully, changed a bit since then; so it makes perfect sense for the grammar rule to change with them. Today, “god” is a common noun, like “person:” it refers to a certain thing/concept that we all know there is more than one of. It’s not a name, and demanding it be treated as the name for one particular god is simply wrong, just like calling one particular person “Person” is wrong.

    If I’m writing for an audience who are predominantly Abrahamic, I’ll probably use the capital-G; but that’s a matter of deferring to a particular audience, not of complying with a rule. If someone else chooses to do something different for the same audience, that’s his/her choice.

  35. says

    brucegorton: yes, “Sun” or “Sol” is capitalized, right along with all the other names we’ve given to other stars, i.e., Rigel, Antares, etc.

  36. says

    PS: I should also note that if I’m writing for an polytheistic audience, I’m pretty sure to be using the capital-G there as well, as in Gods, Goddess(es), etc. If I’m going to be following an old grammar rule, I might as well follow it as consistently and fairly as I can.

  37. ludicrous says

    I am very pleased to see this discussion.

    I prefer the g word not be capitalized. My view is that since a proper noun denotes a singular identity and there are many gods described in a myriad of ways, a proper noun, that is a capitalized noun would not be grammatical.

  38. culuriel says

    I would never describe the Greek god Zeus as “God”. He’s a specific character from Greek mythology. As such, I use the god’s actual name, and capitalize the first letter. I wouldn’t call the Abrahamic god “God”. I call him Yahweh, and spell the name accordingly. I get Eskrow’s point, but just because someone says “God”, doesn’t mean I know which god they’re referring to. Is someone referring to the fundamentalist, literal Yahweh who actually created the Earth in six days and performed miracles? Is someone referring to the Jiminy Cricket version of Yahweh who kind of set things in motion and nudges us along to do what’s right? If Eskrow wants me to spell his, or anyone’s, god correctly, can he and other Abrahamic-god believers at least come up with a name that tells me which god it is?

  39. busterggi says

    I always capitalize Yahweh, Jesus, Jehovah, El, Thor and other proper names of deities but I don’t capitalize adjectives, not ever for the great & powerful wizard of Oz.

  40. John Horstman says

    @luzclara #11:

    And we don’t put capital letters on the fronts of the names we utter.

    I disagree – in English, we certainly can and do use inflection to indicate capital letters in spoken language. The observation of this phenomenon is not uncommon: see these Google results, for example.

  41. Ole Tjugen says

    There ws a time when it was thought that one capital leter was not enough. Maybe not in English, but certainly in Danish bibles the spelling was “GUd”. Yes, that’ right. TWo capital letters, since anybody can have One.

    But “god” is a job title, not a proper name. So since I don’t believe in any gods, I will contine to treat them like other fictional entities: Yahwe, Odin, an just any other god.


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