Ask the Director: Do I capitalize pronouns that refer to God?

Dear Director:

Has there been a move away from capitalizing His and He when referring to God in journalism?  And if so, what is the rationale for it?  I've heard the Chicago Manual and the AP Style Guide referenced, but who or what is driving the shift? Being a boomer, I grew up with all pronouns capped.  I'll give you the French pray with the familiar form "tu" instead of "vous" - the more formal address.  But I'm concerned about America's seeming shift from God's authority and sovereignty to  "just another god" reference.

Pronoun Ponderer

Dear Ponderer:

Like you, I was raised to capitalize pronouns that refer to God. And like you, I’ve seen a shift away from this practice.

It’s true that the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associate Press Style Guide do not capitalize pronouns that refer to God. But it’s also true that most publications create their own “local” style guide to cover exceptions and omissions relative to their dominant style guide. In publications I’ve edited, I’ve always capitalized references to deity. My sense is that there’s a significant difference between references to God and references to anybody else, and I prefer to capitalize pronouns that refer to God for reasons of clarity. As a college journalism teacher, this is the one exception to AP style I permit even in my beginning classes, as long as the students are consistent.

At the same time, the lack of capitalized pronouns doesn’t necessarily need to be seen as a sign of disrespect. The King James Version, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year, does not capitalize pronouns that refer to God. Neither do several other historic English Bible translations, including those by Wycliff (1380) and Tyndale (1534). And, of course, the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts on which our translations are based do not capitalize pronouns that refer to God.

Different publications draw the line in different places. Some strictly adhere to Chicago or AP style, which means no capitalized pronouns for deity. Others will capitalize pronouns that refer to the God of the Christian faith, but not to gods of other religions (this is the “I don’t capitalize pronouns referring to deities I don’t worship” approach). I don’t know of any that capitalize all references to deity regardless of religion (and one wonders how such a publication would handle a review of the new movie “Thor”).

On a related note, both Chicago and AP style capitalize the word “God” when referring to the supreme deity – the God of a monotheistic religion. However, they lower-case “god” when referring to the gods of polytheistic faiths, such as Hinduism or the gods of Norse, Greek or Roman mythology.

--Former Director, Doug Trouten