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Mistakes About "Correctness":

The "Capt."/"CAPT" debate started here by accident, and of course the issue itself is of very little importance. But I keep coming back to it, because it's a special case of a broader linguistic-philosophical issue — one I've touched on before as to geographical designations, titles for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and more. It also relates to a broader phenomenon, which has often been discussed here as to language: The common insistence that one particular answer is The Correct Answer, even when there's good reason to think that there are multiple correct answers.

Consider: Which is the correct name for that big country in the middle of Europe — Deutschland, Germany, Allemagne, Niemcy, Saksa, or Vokietija? Well, it all depends on what language you're speaking; there is no one correct answer, though there is generally one correct answer (to this particular question) in each language. Likewise, which is the correct name for the country in which I live — America, the United States, the U.S., the United States of America, or the States? Here there is no one correct answer even in American English, though some usages may be more suitable than others depending on the formality of the context, and some may be clearer than others depending on the context. "Correct" doesn't refer to some Platonic ideal of correctness. It simply means "consistent with the rules of the context in which the term is being used."

Now let's turn for a moment to CAPT. In standard English, words tend to be written either in all-lowercase or with the first letter capitalized, unless they are abbreviations formed from the initials of a phrase (e.g., the FBI). More specifically, abbreviations formed from the first several letters of a word are written that way, with a period indicating that the word is an abbreviation.

Yet despite this, the Navy of the English-speaking United States decided to use a distinctly non-standard-English abbreviation system. Is this "incorrect"? Well, it is certainly inconsistent with the usage practices of standard English, so it would probably be said to be incorrect in standard English. But of course organizations and professions often develop their own jargon. In that jargon, CAPT is now a correct form (and, I'm told, the only correct form in certain contexts, though of course the Navy itself uses "Capt." in other contexts).

The Navy has thus taken advantage of the fact that what is "correct" varies from context to context. Perhaps it shouldn't have taken advantage of this; perhaps it should have stuck with the standards of the broader language that it usually aspires to use. Or perhaps its decision was right, for a variety of reasons. But the important point is that its decision only makes sense once one recognizes that what is "correct" in one language or lingo need not be the sole "correct" usage in another.

Likewise, the Navy's decision to adopt its own style for its jargon doesn't tell us what is "correct" in standard English — just as the standard English practice doesn't tell us what the Navy must use. It's CAPT in Navalese, Capt. in English; it's Deutschland in German, Germany in English; it's lorry in British English, truck in American English.

Now one extra complication, raised by some posts: Might it be the case that "the only correct usage" as a matter of the rules of good manners — even if not of the rules of language — is to follow the rules of the Navy in identifying Naval officers, even in standard English? "Correct," after all, means in this context "consistent with a certain set of rules." Perhaps the rules of manners provide a more definite answer.

But I've seen no evidence that there is such a rule of manners, and no good argument that it should be. It's not bad manners to say Munich in English or Monaco in Italian instead of using (in English or Italian) the original München. It's not bad manners to call Russian astronauts "astronauts" rather than "cosmonauts" (or, if you were really trying to follow the original, "kosmonavty") — and I've always found it pretty affected when Americans say "cosmonaut," though that's an aesthetic judgment and not a correctness judgment. I don't see why it should be bad manners to write Capt. instead of CAPT. If someone wants to make the contrary argument, I'd love to see it in the comments — but the argument should explain why, in the face of the accepted practice that foreign terms are translated into standard English with no breach of bad manners, there should be any manners prohibition on similarly translating jargon.

Note also that the argument that CAPT avoids confusion (given that the Naval "Captain" in rank is very different from the similar rank in other services) doesn't really work. Readers who know that there's a difference between Captain ranks will recognize it without the different capitalization (at least where, as in my post, they are told that the Captain was in the Navy). Readers who don't know about the difference won't get anything out of the different capitalization. Perhaps there are a few people who'll see the CAPT and will be reminded of the difference that they otherwise would have missed; but I expect they are very few indeed. In any case, even if CAPT is slightly more clear, it still doesn't follow that "Capt." is incorrect — at most, "Capt." would then be slightly less clear than it could be, which is a reason to fault the usage but a different reason than "incorrectness."

I expect all this will drive some of our readers to mutter about relativism and The Sorry State Of The Academy Today, but if this is a "relativist" position, then here the relativists are right.

Place names, titles, and words generally are not "correct" or "incorrect" in the abstract. What is correct depends on the context; in many contexts more than one term is correct. And unless you're willing to say an otherwise-English-speaking Navy is incorrect to use the highly non-standard-English "CAPT," you can't reasonably say that standard English users are incorrect for sticking with the good old-fashioned "Capt."

Lev:
We could always refer to them as Navy Capt., Army Capt., Marine Capt., or Air Force Capt.

Or, they could stop the Capt stuff and refer to themselves and each other by their "number" O-2E or whatever.
12.17.2007 12:33am
neurodoc:
The pedantic is OK when there is something to it that can enlighten or amuse, however inconsequentially. But when it is pedantic without any such possibilities, that gets wearisome very fast. CAPT has become that for me.

But I think there is something more interesting to how places are identified and the implications in that. Whether one refers to China's capital as Beijing or Peking must matter little, but some other choices may matter a great deal to some. For most of my life it was "the Ukraine" and now it is simply "Ukraine," and the difference seems to be pregant with meaning. What other choices does one make in what they call a place today that implies a political or partisan view favoring one side or the other in a territorial dispute?
12.17.2007 12:37am
Angeleno:
This is a bit off-topic, but Eugene's comment that (of course) all-caps abbreviations of non-acronyms are generally non-standard in English reminds me of an apparent exception I've wondered about before: Why the all-caps "GYN" in "OB/GYN" (for "obstetrician/gynecologist"), and why do so many people pronounce the "GYN" part as "Gee Wy En" rather than "gyn"? And the same could be asked of the "OB" part too, though somehow the "GYN" part seems stranger . . . .
12.17.2007 12:38am
dsn:
Angeleno: I think you partially answered your own question. People likely pronounce the letters on GYN because they assume that an all caps abbreviation like term actually is an abbreviation. Just like how say Cee Eye Eh rather then cia.
12.17.2007 1:05am
Random Commenter:
"The pedantic is OK when there is something to it that can enlighten or amuse, however inconsequentially. But when it is pedantic without any such possibilities, that gets wearisome very fast. CAPT has become that for me. "

Indeed. This very minor topic has been beaten well beyond death.
12.17.2007 1:06am
Thoughtful (mail):
EV asks if there are rules of etiquette concerning military titles used in civilian contexts. I have no idea what the answer is, but I'm pretty confident there IS an answer to this. EV: Why not call Ms Manners and see what she says? I'm sure it will be informative and well thought out.
12.17.2007 1:09am
Tony Tutins (mail):
Do we have to respect idiosyncratic choices of non-standard capitalization, like E.E. Cummings or Bell Hooks? Where will it all end, if not at Leo Rosten's Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, "mine job a cotter in dress factory."
12.17.2007 1:31am
Freddy Hill:
Tony Tutins' comment reminded me posts on this topic at Language Log. In particular, Arnold Zwicky post, e e cummings and his iPod: Faith vs. WF again where he analyzes "conflicts between faithfulness (Faith: roughly, stick to the original) and well-formedness (WF: roughly, make things fit your system)" using first-letter capitalization as an example. If you are pedant enough to have followed this series of posts you will find it interesting.
12.17.2007 2:03am
Eugene Volokh (www):
As I mentioned, I'm dwelling on CAPT/Capt. because it's a pretty good stand-in for a broader set of debates about what's "correct," and what "correct" means.
12.17.2007 2:04am
Frater Plotter:
As I mentioned, I'm dwelling on CAPT/Capt. because it's a pretty good stand-in for a broader set of debates about what's "correct," and what "correct" means.

As I recall, in the original context of this discussion it's acting as a shibboleth. The original claim was that people who use the "incorrect" word are thereby demonstrating that they are not qualified to speak about military (or naval?) issues. This has been couched in a number of ways:

As a sign of membership (a classic shibboleth): people "in the know" recognize whether a writer is using the "correct" term, and decide on that basis what to think of the writer. This is basically what any educated person tends to do with correct and incorrect spelling -- but in this case there is the political overtone of military vs. civilian control of the discourse pertaining to war.

As a sign of "respect" or political allegiance: using the "incorrect" term as a sign of disrespect or neglect as well as ignorance. This goes along with a political belief that the only legitimate participants in the discourse are those who bow to the appropriate altars: that those who are not adherents to the right ideology are not worthy to be heard.

As a piece of good old-fashioned Grammar Nazi nerd-nastiness: "I know more than you! I can show you up, you lame lame lamer."
12.17.2007 5:24am
Gideon:
I might mention that the difference is derived from necessity and not at all from a linguistic foundation. Keep in mind that the Marine Corps is the only continuous military service tin the United States from 1775. The Navy &Army were both disbanded at one point. When Marine Captains are with the Navy, as they often are, there is one abbreviation for them - Capt. Marine Captains are O-3 grade level while Naval Captains are O-6 grade level (three ranks higher), or the equivalent pay grade of a Marine Colonel.

Confusing a Marine Captain with a Naval Captain would either give the Marine Captain benefits he/she does not deserve (an O-3 is not a field grade officer, whereas an O-6 gets field grade benefits - separate, nicer berthing, mess facilities etc.) or deny a Naval Captain the benefits he/she has earned through more service and being promoted to a higher grade. This is the necessity and hence the requirement for correctness in the designation with appropriate brevity. If the abbreviation is preceded by Naval or Marine, then it matters not. But since certain documents, sign-in sheets at BOQs and other things might not have service, but only rank, the appropriate abbreviation is requested so that the appropriate level of service can be rendered. Military ID Cards have the rank abbreviated and now include a full-color service logo. Previously, the logo was in black &white and rather small. The abbreviation clearly indicates rank and service. Although the Air Force and Marines use the same abbreviations, generally, Marines are not confused with Air Force (one has an excess of hair and the other has hair de minimus).

Would a tenured professor want to be treated as a 3L? And neither does a Naval Captain. Note that on the Naval web sites you quote, the offending abbreviation violators are either Naval Journalists (who should know better) or civilians. Find the abbreviation misused in an OPNAV, where formal naval policy is set and it will have the force of credibility. Please don't give such "correctness" credibility to what is the equivalent of a journalist writing a paper on a court's decision, as opposed to the actual decision itself.

As a Marine Officer, I found great benefit when coordinating with the Navy when I was able to identify myself as Captain...
12.17.2007 5:30am
Gideon:
Additionally, to support the case that this is not a linguistic exercise at all, but simply a matter of following the law, here is a Naval Instruction (military statute) giving guidance on the use of rank abbreviations.

OPNAVINST 3104.4 Scroll down to Appendix B

One shouldn't confuse reason with the written law. One also might say that your exercise here, although you've demonstrated intellectually sound and well-researched reasoning, is simply mixing apples and oranges. Some Naval Administrative bureaucrat at some point in the past decided that the Navy's rank abbreviation needed to be different so the Navy went with the all caps approach.

By the way, I saw you speak live at the Federalist Society's annual convention in D.C. - well done!
12.17.2007 5:38am
U.Va. 3L:
Additionally, to support the case that this is not a linguistic exercise at all, but simply a matter of following the law, here is a Naval Instruction (military statute) giving guidance on the use of rank abbreviations.

The applicability and scope section of your linked document specifically says it applies to "Navy activities." I think only a vastly overbroad construction of "Navy activities" would include rare, incidental discussion of the US Navy on a blog run by civilian law professors. Thus, since the law you want to follow doesn't seem to apply, I'd say that this is back to being a linguistic exercise.
12.17.2007 6:51am
M (mail):
I agree with all of this, except that "esthetic" really ought to be "aesthetic". (Even my spell checker agrees, and there's no higher authority for me than that, except when I disagree with it.) [EV: Whoops, I prefer "aesthetic," too, but just slipped up this time; corrected it, thanks!]
12.17.2007 7:15am
Sarah (mail) (www):
I think it's all pretty silly. When a Sea Cadet we spent far more time than I think was really necessary on abbreviations and courtesies for officer levels we'd never meet (we were fourteen and living in rural Ohio, for crying out loud,) and don't get me started on the stuff Army ROTC tries teaching you in your first two courses in Military Science. And we never covered this CAPT. vs. Capt. stuff.

Randomly: I mostly came here to defend my use of "cosmonaut." It's an easy way of immediately indicating "Russians in space," while "astronaut" just means "some guy in space," and so when I mean to say some space-faring type was from Russia/the USSR (to emphasize, e.g. their early manned flight success, or to point out the composition of a typical space station crew) "cosmonaut" is highly effective.

Anyway, can't we get back to the important stuff easily solved by bloggers, like determining whether the capital of Israel, for diplomatic purposes, should be Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?
12.17.2007 7:32am
rarango (mail):
Eugene: I am assuming classes are over, all your holiday cards and packages are completed, and you have too much time on your hands. :)
12.17.2007 9:13am
Sean M:
I think They Might Be Giants had the last word on this:

"Even old New York was once New Amsterdam.
Why they change it? I can't say.
People just liked it better that way."
12.17.2007 9:58am
Tracy W (mail):
Confusing a Marine Captain with a Naval Captain would either give the Marine Captain benefits he/she does not deserve (an O-3 is not a field grade officer, whereas an O-6 gets field grade benefits - separate, nicer berthing, mess facilities etc.) or deny a Naval Captain the benefits he/she has earned through more service and being promoted to a higher grade.

How is the term a civilian law professor uses going to affect the benefits a Marine Captain or a Naval Captain gets?
Are military staff really going to look at a Naval Captain and say "Well, I was going to give you a separate, nicer berth, and mess facilities, but some law professor back Stateside used the abbreviation 'Capt.', not 'CAPT', so I'm assigning you to sleep in the engine room and eat out of the garbage bins?"
12.17.2007 10:07am
William Oliver (mail) (www):
" I don't see why it should be bad manners to write Capt. instead of CAPT. If someone wants to make the contrary argument, I'd love to see it in the comments — but the argument should explain why, in the face of the accepted practice that foreign terms are translated into standard English with no breach of bad manners, there should be any manners prohibition on similarly translating jargon."

I addressed this partly in my reply to your comment in the previous post, but since you state this explicitly here, I'll reply explicitly. The fact that you use translating from a foreign language as an example is almost exactly the point. It's not bad manners to write Munich in English, of course. But if you want to opine about Germany to a German and not seem foolish, you will at some point need to show that you know something about Germany. Otherwise you will just seem arrogant and silly. Demonstrating knowledge about the language and culture helps in that regard.

I'll quote from the article by Robert Kaplan I referenced before:

"The loss of a warrior mentality and the rise of universal values seem to be features of all stable, Western-style middle-class democracies. Witness our situation. The Army Reserve is desperate for officers, yet there is little urge among American elites to volunteer. Thus our military takes on more of a regional caste. The British Army may have been drawn from the dregs of society, but its officers were the country's political elite. Not so ours, which has little to do with the business of soldiering and is socially disconnected from what guards us in our sleep. According to Marine Maj. General Michael Lehnert, nine Princeton graduates in the class of 2006 entered the military, compared to 400 in 1956, when there was a draft. Some Ivy League schools had no one enter the military last year. Only one member of the Stanford graduating class had a parent in the military.

...


Without a draft or a revitalized Reserve and National Guard that ties the military closer to civilian society, in the decades ahead American troops may become less soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen, and more purple warriors—in essence a guild in which the profession of combat-arms is passed down from father to son. It is striking how many troops I know whose parents and other relatives had also been in the service, especially among the units whose members face the highest level of personal risk. Contrast this with the fact that, at the 2006 Stanford commencement ceremony, Maj. General Lehnert, whose son was the lone graduating student from a military family, was struck by how many of the other parents had never even met a member of the military before he introduced himself.


A citizen army is composed of conscripts from all classes and parts of the country in roughly equal proportion. But a volunteer military is necessarily dominated by those regions with an old-fashioned fighting ethos: the South and the adjacent Bible Belts of the southern Midwest and Great Plains..."


As I stated before, it all depends on your audience. The US military is turning into a separate society. If your audience is other civilians, then certainly it doesn't matter. If your audience is military folk, then demonstrating some knowledge about their society is helpful. You don't have to do so, and there's nothing wrong with being a civilian who doesn't know anything about the military, but your opinions will be weighted accordingly. You will have the comfort of knowing that you are gramatically correct and, to those people, functionally irrelevant.
12.17.2007 10:47am
ReaderY:
Uh...Istanbul (Not Constantinople) was sung by The Four Lads in 1953, long before They Might Be Giants.
12.17.2007 10:48am
Martin Grant (mail):

Some Naval Administrative bureaucrat at some point in the past decided that the Navy's rank abbreviation needed to be different so the Navy went with the all caps approach.

Here's where I think the Navy should have just decided on a new name for the rank, instead of changing the rules for capitalization. After all the potential for confusion still exists to much a higher degree than it would with a new rank name.
12.17.2007 10:55am
Bama 1L:
Note that on the Naval web sites you quote, the offending abbreviation violators are either Naval Journalists (who should know better) or civilians.

Have some faith in the men and women in uniform. The Navy's own style guide says to use AP style when writing for a civilian audience (look under "military rank"). Believe it or not, editors are downright obsessive about this type of thing. So if JO2 Scribe is writing an article that might get picked up by a hometown paper, he is obliged to refer to Captain Seadog as "Capt. Seadog," not "CAPT Seadog."

I think They Might Be Giants had the last word on this

That song actually dates to 1953. It was an a capella standard long before TMBG got hold of it.

Oh, and when I was a kid I thought "cosmonaut" has something to do with communism.
12.17.2007 11:01am
Sean M:
Was it really?

I learn something new from this blog every day.

Thanks, Bama 1L and ReaderY.
12.17.2007 11:13am
Paul Allen:
Is it correct to transliterate other peoples names into your own language? I.e., if someone is called Juan in Spanish, is it insulting or not that when speaking and writing English one says "John"?
12.17.2007 11:23am
neurodoc:
...like determining whether the capital of Israel, for diplomatic purposes, should be Jerusalem or Tel Aviv
Why should Israel be the only member country of the UN whose capital, for purposes diplomatic and other, would be other than where its citizens place it, namely Jerusalem? (That's a semi-rhetorical question, since I know full well and expect most others do too why it is disputed.

But when I asked what choices between alternative place names might reveal the speaker/writer's politics, I was thinking of Jerusalem as one example. When someone refers to that city as Al Quds, you might be unsure whether they are Fatah or Hamas, but you can be certain they are neither Labor, nor Likud. And there are probably many more, though perhaps not so hotly contested, telling place name choices one is faced with. Irredentists vs non-irridentists, if you will? (Or should that be revanchist vs non-revanchist, or all the same thing?)

Frater Ploter, I take your point about some of these "choices" operating as shibboleths. My point about place names is similar to your about the rank designator, but rather than distinguishing between the informed and uninformed, but distinguishing by politic stance, or friend vs foe, which I think is the original Biblical meaning of shibboleth.
12.17.2007 11:27am
neurodoc:
...like determining whether the capital of Israel, for diplomatic purposes, should be Jerusalem or Tel Aviv
Why should Israel be the only member country of the UN whose capital, for purposes diplomatic and other, would be other than where its citizens place it, namely Jerusalem? (That's a semi-rhetorical question, since I know full well and expect most others do too why it is disputed.

But when I asked what choices between alternative place names might reveal the speaker/writer's politics, I was thinking of Jerusalem as one example. When someone refers to that city as Al Quds, you might be unsure whether they are Fatah or Hamas, but you can be certain they are neither Labor, nor Likud. And there are probably many more, though perhaps not so hotly contested, telling place name choices one is faced with. Irredentists vs non-irridentists, if you will? (Or should that be revanchist vs non-revanchist, or all the same thing?)

Frater Ploter, I take your point about some of these "choices" operating as shibboleths. My point about place names is similar to your about the rank designator, but rather than distinguishing between the informed and uninformed, but distinguishing by politic stance, or friend vs foe, which I think is the original Biblical meaning of shibboleth.
12.17.2007 11:27am
gj:
As a comment on the Capt/CAPT debate, there's a long-standing policy (don't know if it's in the regs or just considered a Good Idea) that a USMC Capt attached to a ship receives a temporary promotion to Major. I know that we had an air det attached to the ship I served in for a WESTPAC deployment - the det commander was a USMC Capt, but for the duration of the deployment, he was Major. The idea is that you want to eliminate ambiguity; on board a ship, when you reference "the Captain" in conversation, you don't want any mistakes about who you're talking about.

I did some time as our flight deck helicopter control officer (HCO), and someone telling me "The Captain says to do X." was very different from "The Major says to do X." Practically speaking, I generally did X, regardless of who was referenced - as HCO, one of my standing orders was to support the USMC flight det and defer to the requests of the Major whenever possible. If push came to shove, though, I needed to know who was giving what order, because of that "whenever possible" - I was responsible to the ship's CO, not the air det CO, and any conflicts had to be resolved in favor of the CAPT, not the Capt.

I think lawyers, of all people, would understand the need for precision in language. Assault, battery - so I get it wrong; what's the difference? In most contexts, none - I'll get the general idea across, and that's good enough. In a specialized context (the legal system), there is a difference, and using the wrong term isn't a shibboleth - it actively displays your ignorance of a nuance that is critical in understanding and practicing law. If you were a lawyer, and you read an newspaper article where someone described a case but confused two basic legal concepts like assault and battery, you'd probably be right to question whether or not the author had any real idea what they were talking about.

Similarly, the Capt/CAPT issue is a minor one outside of the military, where the distinction isn't generally critical. Within a military context - including writing about military matters - it's presence isn't a sign indicating that the user is "in the know", or part of a particular group. It's the absence of proper usage that waves a red flag. Someone who is familiar with the military usage of CAPT, and the underlying reasons - avoiding ambiguity in cross-service communications - will be careful about using CAPT instead of Capt. when the possibility of ambiguity exists. Doing so doesn't make you go, "A-ha! This is one of my tribe!"... but a failure to do so brings into question whether or not the person really understand what they're talking about.
12.17.2007 11:39am
Dave N (mail):
I was thinking about this series of posts while watching The Today Show and some moron from the U.S. Postal Service was reminding everyone to use the fully capitalized state abbreviations.

After all, a postal scanner will never figure out that "Cal." and "California" might also be "CA"--and only something like the Postal Service would put "LA" anywhere but southern California.
12.17.2007 11:40am
Bama 1L:
gj, I think that is a custom of the naval service and does not require commitment to writing. There's only one Captain aboard ship, no matter how many individuals hold the rank of captain and what the rank of the commanding officer is. (I would guess that the commanding officer of the ship in your story was an O-6, but there are plenty of O-5s and even O-4s holding commands.)

Don't toast with water, either.
12.17.2007 12:01pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
Mobile is in LA.
And USC are the Gamecocks.
12.17.2007 12:04pm
Aukahe:
Gideon,

The United States Army has been in continuous service since 14 June 1775.
12.17.2007 12:13pm
Tracy W (mail):
I think lawyers, of all people, would understand the need for precision in language. Assault, battery - so I get it wrong; what's the difference? In most contexts, none - I'll get the general idea across, and that's good enough. In a specialized context (the legal system), there is a difference, and using the wrong term isn't a shibboleth - it actively displays your ignorance of a nuance that is critical in understanding and practicing law. If you were a lawyer, and you read an newspaper article where someone described a case but confused two basic legal concepts like assault and battery, you'd probably be right to question whether or not the author had any real idea what they were talking about.
...
Doing so doesn't make you go, "A-ha! This is one of my tribe!"... but a failure to do so brings into question whether or not the person really understand what they're talking about.


As far as I know, Volokh has never claimed to be an expert on military rank.

Eugene Volokh was introducing a guest poster that the Volokh conspiracy has persuaded to make some posts here about women in combat. Captain Rosemary Bryant Mariner to be precise. The introduction lists Captain Rosemary Bryant Mariner's qualifications in the form of her current job and past experience. It is entirely possible that Eugene Volokh does not really understand many aspects of Captain Mariner's life. For example, he says that Captain Mariner was the first woman to command an aviation squadron. Clearly, if Captain Mariner was the first woman to do something, Eugue Volokh can never have been the first woman to do something, therefore he cannot fully understand what it was like.

I don't know what it is like in the military, but in my experience in civvie world, it is quite common for a person who calls in an expert to not really understand what the expert is talking about. Indeed, we tend to expect that if you do know everything the expert knows, then the expert shouldn't be called in at all.

And if failing to distinguish between CAPT and Capt. means that you are signalling that you don't really understand what you are talking about, then I intend to use this signal as much as possible, because when it comes to the military I don't know what I am talking about (barring unusual situations like a uniformed soldier stopping and asking me the way to the nearest pub). And I think it would be entirely sensible of Eugene Volokh to do the same if he does not want to be perceived as an expert on military matters.

Or, in other words, gj has just actually made a strong argument for military English rules not being applied to standard English.
12.17.2007 12:28pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"And if failing to distinguish between CAPT and Capt. means that you are signalling that you don't really understand what you are talking about, then I intend to use this signal as much as possible... And I think it would be entirely sensible of Eugene Volokh to do the same if he does not want to be perceived as an expert on military matters."

Exactly! If cluelessness and ignorance are virtues, then the policy admirably succeeds in conveying it to an audience that is neither.
12.17.2007 1:41pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
I'm still trying to understand how this even got started. I've never met any navy officer who gave two thoughts to this. There are conventions used in naval correspondence, but those don't really mean very much at all. Not only is no one offended, but I don't know any navy officer that capitalizes their rank outside of official correspondence.

Tempest in a teapot.
12.17.2007 1:45pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
William Oliver: We agree, I take it, that deliberately using "Germany" for Deutschland while writing in English is fine, and not a signal of cluelessness or ignorance about Germany. (After all, this involves writing in English, though about Germany, not in German.)

We also agree, I take it, that deliberately departing from the rules of standard English capitalization and punctuation (which would dictate "Capt." rather than CAPT) and using Naval jargon rules while writing in Naval jargon is fine, and not a signal of cluelessness or ignorance about standard English. (After all, this involves writing in Naval jargon, not in standard unmodified English.)

Yet you argue that deliberately following the rules of standard English capitalization and punctuation while abbreviating "Captain" in English is somehow different, and a signal of cluelessness or ignorance -- even though this involves writing in standard English, though about Naval matters, not in Naval jargon. Why the difference between this situation and the first two?
12.17.2007 2:17pm
spaceman65:
This entire discussion, which is pretty insightful on all fronts, has unfortunately put in my mind not the wisdom of the thinkers, but the movie "Stripes," more particularly, Sgt. [not SGT] Hulka's famous statement, "Lighten up, Francis." Perhaps, I'm simply bemused. I guess it beats riled up. "I say Capt., you say CAPT, let's call the whole thing off."
12.17.2007 2:33pm
No Caliban (mail):
Can lead to some wonderful mix-ups. In 1983 I was a 25-year-old Regular Navy Lieutenant (junior grade), or O-2. My ID card abbreviated my rank as LTJG. I needed a place to stay while visiting DC, and went to Army fort that had visiting officers' quarters. I showed my ID to the clerks at the check-in desk, they looked at me, my ID, at me again, shrugged as only military clerks can, and got me an escort to a great suite of rooms. I was thrilled, and regretted everything I had thought about the Army's lack of cross-service hospitality. Until I received the room voucher, where my rank was spelled out as "Lieut. General".
12.17.2007 2:48pm
No Caliban (mail):
Follow up. My youngest brother is a major in the National Guard, commanding a battalion soon to deploy to Afghanistan. He sent me an email yesterday. In it his rank and name are rendered in form: "MAJ John Q. Public"
12.17.2007 2:52pm
Porkchop:
Gideon


Confusing a Marine Captain with a Naval Captain would either give the Marine Captain benefits he/she does not deserve (an O-3 is not a field grade officer, whereas an O-6 gets field grade benefits - separate, nicer berthing, mess facilities etc.) or deny a Naval Captain the benefits he/she has earned through more service and being promoted to a higher grade.


As long as we are on the subject, Navy Captains and Commanders are NOT "field grade" officers, they are "staff grade". (Lieutenant Commanders are not "staff grade," notwithstanding that the equivalent Army rank, Major, is "field grade.") When a non-ship's company CDR boards or leaves a ship, his/her arrival is noted with 4 bells and the 1MC (public address system to you lubbers) announcement, "Staff, gangway, arriving/departing." In the case of a CAPT, this is technically supposed to be the same, but often it is rendered, as "Captain, United States Mavy, arriving/departing." Presumably, although I never had occasion to do so, one would render the same honors to field grade officers from other branches -- although I'm not so sure about Majors. But the scrambled eggs on their visor cover would probably be visible before their rank insignia, so they would probably get it anyway. Admirals get 6 bells, by the way, and their rank is part of the announcement -- maybe that's why Captains like to hear the rank instead of "staff." It makes them feel more important, not that they really need that . . . .

Some other time, I will fill you all in on boat hails to identify what honors are due when receiving personnel while at anchor. :-)
12.17.2007 3:16pm
Daedalus Mugged:
For what it is worth, the both the Army and Navy capitalize all of its rank abbreviations. The Navy uses 4 letter abbreviations for rank while the Army uses 3. Thus the Naval CAPT vs the Army CPT.
12.17.2007 3:27pm
Boyd (mail) (www):

There's only one Captain aboard ship...

Not really. There's only one Captain of the ship aboard, but there can be as many Captains as you can stuff aboard, and they're all properly addressed as "Captain." The Commanding Officer (of the ship or any unit) can also be addressed in somewhat informal settings as "Skipper;" the other Captains cannot.

And in my experience, Marine Captains remained Captains aboard a ship. Clarity was achieved by appending the Captain's name to his rank (any Captain), or by referring to the ship's Captain as "the Skipper."

I would point out that the Army and the Navy render all rank abbreviations in all caps (Army Captain = CPT, btw), so I submit that the specific rank of Captain has nothing to do with it. (My rank (rate and rating, to be anal about it) is CTIC (Ret.))

And as for the suggestion that the Navy change the name instead of the punctuation? I'm struggling to remain civil here (because if this were to be suggested by someone in the Navy, it would be heresy). Let's just say that Captains have been around for too many centuries to go changing the name of their rank. As an example, during my tenure in the Navy, the title of the lowest Flag Officer rank was changed from Rear Admiral (Lower Half) to Commodore. That only lasted a few years, before the rank's name was changed to Rear Admiral.

I won't even get started about the history of rank names for O-7 and O-8 in the Navy. Let's just say that all branches of the military jealously guard their traditions (the Air Force is the exception: they haven't been around long enough to have traditions, and they're not a military branch, anyway [/good-humored inter-service snark]).
12.17.2007 3:54pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"We agree, I take it, that deliberately using "Germany" for Deutschland while writing in English is fine, and not a signal of cluelessness or ignorance about Germany. (After all, this involves writing in English, though about Germany, not in German.)...

Yet you argue that deliberately following the rules of standard English capitalization and punctuation while abbreviating "Captain" in English is somehow different, and a signal of cluelessness or ignorance -- even though this involves writing in standard English, though about Naval matters, not in Naval jargon. Why the difference between this situation and the first two?"

There's always a problem with arguing analogies in that people become more concerned with the details of the analogy than the point at hand. I'll suggest that a better analogy than Anglicizing the name of a country would be exactly what we are talking about -- a title.

Since we are talking about Germany, consider the use of the title "Doktor." In German medicine, it has a different connotation than in the US. Your average medical "Doctor" in the US would not be considered a "Dr." in Germany, but instead a medical practitioner. The term "Doktor" is used only with someone who has done further work. Similarly, a "physician" in many places is what we call an "internist" in the US, and not a general term for a person who practices medicine.

So, let's assume you are German and are referring to an American physician. You are presenting a paper at an international conference in Hamburg. A well-known American colleague raises his hand to ask a question. Would you refuse to give your colleague the courtesy title traditional to his or her practice when you call on him because of the "proper" convention in Germany? Or would you call him "Dr. Smith" even though that's not technically correct in Germany, but correct in the US?

I would call on Dr. Smith as Dr. Smith because that's what he is used to, and because it places value on the tradition of American medicine even though it was not my tradition. I would not say to myself "Well, he thinks he's a Doctor, but he's not really, so I'll call him 'Mr.' Smith."

So, because it's you and not me, you call on him as "Mr. Smith." Dr. Smith will likely not take offense, thinking that you don't know better. However, if you tell him "I know you think you're a Doctor, but to me you're not. I don't care what you think of yourself, in Germany you're just an Arzt," it will not engender goodwill when next he reviews one of your articles for publication.

Even worse, if you decide to write an editorial about US medicine and say "All those people in the US who think they're doctors really aren't," you will simply seem a fool, however correct you are where you sit.

I think GJ said it best when he wrote: "It's the absence of proper usage that waves a red flag... [Using appropriate titles] doesn't make you go, "A-ha! This is one of my tribe!"... but a failure to do so brings into question whether or not the person really understand what they're talking about."

That's why the writers at milblogs such as Blackfive use the correct abbreviations. This is not a milblog, of course, but the reason the milblogs use correct abbreviations is because it's correct. It's not a big a deal, and is, as Skyler noted, a tempest in a teapot, but the insistance that the military is wrong and you are right when dealing with military matters just marks you as clueless. And, in spite of what folk seem to insist, how one writes one's rank is a military matter.

Once again, it depends on your audience. If your audience consists of folk who don't know the difference and don't care, then you are golden. As Tracy suggests, celebrate ignorance. If you are writing to people who do know the difference, then all of them will notice, and many of them will care.

The *reason* that many will care has to do with the two articles I referenced. It's cultural, sorta like treatment of the flag. For some people, wearing clothing made out of the Stars and Stripes is a patriotic gesture. To others it's an insult to the flag. Whether or not it is proper in a technical sense is irrelevant. Telling someone who cares that wearing underwear made of the flag is perfectly legal won't make it better.
12.17.2007 3:56pm
Boyd (mail) (www):
Oh, and Porkchop, speaking only from the authority of my experience, as opposed to any governing and explicit regulation, the Navy has Flag Officers (O-7 to O-10), Senior Officers (O-5 and O-6), Junior Officers (O-1 through O-4, although it pisses off the LCDRs to call them JOs, even though they are) and Chief Warrant Officers (CWO-2 through CWO-4 5).

Staff Officers belong to the various Staff Corps, such as Medical Corps, Chaplain Corps, Supply Corps, etc.

Again, I cite no authority other than my experience. I'm merely saying that the above was at least the de facto "truth" during my Navy career.
12.17.2007 4:10pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
I'm still not sure of the argument. Titles get translated from language to language all the time. Russian polkovniki become American colonels. I'm translating the Navalese CAPT into the standard English Capt.

The example you give is one in which a title might be omitted. In my view, when one is speaking a language, one uses the titular scheme standard to that language. Thus, if in German medical doctors are generally not called "doctor," there's nothing incorrect when Germans speaking German at a German conference maintain the same practice for American doctors that they use for other doctors. If someone wants to do the opposite, that's fine; but there's nothing incorrect, ill-mannered, or inherently ignorant or clueless in a German's following the standard German rules on the subject.

But in any case, that example isn't apt here. Here, a title is being translated, CAPT to Capt., just as Polkovnik is translated as Colonel.
12.17.2007 4:13pm
JZB (mail):
I posted this to the earlier "CAPT" post and am copying it up here:

My husband is a naval officer. When we are sent social invitations on official stationary, they use AP style for the rank abbreviation, not all caps. In other words, if he were Captain Doe it would read "Capt. and Mrs. Doe," not CAPT and Mrs. So does this demonstrate ignorance of proper style on the Navy's part?
12.17.2007 4:32pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
I agree with Boyd. The correct designation is Junior officer (CW02 through LtCdr), Senior Officer (Cdr and Capt) and then Flag officer (all the admirals). Warrant officer 1 is not a commissioned officer so I can't recall how they fit in. Or did they change that now and make a CWO-1? It's hard to keep track.

The reason for the different ranks is that there are two rank systems: Naval ranks and Military ranks. Until the air force came around, it was easy to see. The army used military ranks and the navy used naval ranks. The Marines used the military ranks because of their mission. Then the air force, which should properly be re-incorporated back into the army used military ranks because they started in the army. So now the Navy looks like an odd ball when they just stayed the same as before.
12.17.2007 4:34pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
Also, Marines are called "naval officers" but never "navy officers." The pedantry has no end.
12.17.2007 4:40pm
Tracy W (mail):
Exactly! If cluelessness and ignorance are virtues, then the policy admirably succeeds in conveying it to an audience that is neither.

My dear William Oliver, I don't follow you. Do you really mean to imply that if I merely know that CAPT and Capt refer to different things in the navy vs the marines, I will thereby be clueful and know everything vital there is to know about the marines and the navy?

I didn't realise the military life was so simple.
12.17.2007 4:40pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"Thus, if in German medical doctors are generally not called "doctor," there's nothing incorrect when Germans speaking German at a German conference maintain the same practice for American doctors that they use for other doctors."

You changed the situation significantly. I wrote that it was an *international* conference (which, by the way, are usually held in English) in which people from many different countries are attending. In *that* situation, it is appropriate to make allowances for that diversity.

Your position reminds me of an experience I had once at a conference in Oporto, Portugal when I was a young graduate student in Computer Science at the University of North Carolina. I was the classic good ole boy from Oklahoma, complete with cowboy hat and boots. We went to a mixer they held at an old castle. At the end of one table of finger foods was a group of people talking with one person I recognized. I wandered over just as the person I knew left, and said "Howdy! I'm Bill Oliver from the University of North Carolina. How y'all doin?"

Like a school of fish, they, as one, turned their backs to me, scuttled a few steps away, and began talking among themselves in French. I was flabbergasted. My companion laughed out loud.

A few days later, after I had given my talk, the little covey of Frenchmen came over to me and said "Docteur Oliver, please accept our apology for our behavior on zee first day of zee meeting. You see, we did not know at zee time zhat you were anyone worth knowing."

Now, "le snobisme" may be perfectly appropriate in France, but at this conference it was not.

And that's the difference. The question is whether or not the military types who read this blog are "anyone worth knowning." As at an international conference, you are not just a civilian writing to civilians, but a civilian writing to a mixed audience of lifelong civilians and people with military backgrounds. I'll bet the person who originally wrote to you with the correction was among the latter. Thus he or she came from *that* country in the analogy. In *your* contry it it's tomayto-tomahto. In his country, it's important. If you want to be successful at an international conference, you accomodate as many people as possible. It doesn't *cost* you anything to accomodate him, but not accomodating him will cost you something in terms of his regard.

Your argument ignores the diversity of your audience, in the same way that a German physician would be ignoring the diversity of an international audience at that medical convention. There's an old saying of "once a Marine, always a Marine." It's true to varying degrees for all vets regardless of their branch of service. You can choose to accomodate that audience or not, but arguments of "correctness" in some abstract sense don't address it at all, and many of that audience will have a different measure of "correctness" than you.
12.17.2007 5:03pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"My dear William Oliver, I don't follow you. Do you really mean to imply that if I merely know that CAPT and Capt refer to different things in the navy vs the marines, I will thereby be clueful and know everything vital there is to know about the marines and the navy?"

My dear Tracy, there's a difference between necessary and sufficient.
12.17.2007 5:17pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"In other words, if he were Captain Doe it would read "Capt. and Mrs. Doe," not CAPT and Mrs. So does this demonstrate ignorance of proper style on the Navy's part?"

I'll repost my response, then. No. It means that the Navy accomodates clueless people. The question becomes whether or not a civilian who is *not* clueless should reciprocate such an accommodation.
12.17.2007 5:21pm
JZB (mail):
You suppose that the Navy assumes that its own officers and their spouses are clueless about correct naval protocol? Interesting argument.
12.17.2007 5:29pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"You suppose that the Navy assumes that its own officers and their spouses are clueless about correct naval protocol? Interesting argument"

Nice try, but please address my point. No, I assume these invitations went to civilians as well as military folk.
12.17.2007 5:43pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Dr. Oliver: I'm sorry I misread your example; but my answer still stands -- if a German doctor is speaking German, even at an international conference, it is not incorrect, ill-mannered, or clueless for him to use the standard conventions of German. (Neither is it incorrect for him to use the English conventions, as you describe them; both are acceptable.)

But that's in the special case where he's essentially omitting a title. I'm speaking about translating the title -- as in my "polkovnik" hypo. When I write about a colonel in the Russian Army, and do so in standard English, I call him "colonel"; that's not incorrect, ill-mannered, or clueless. I know full well he's a "polkovnik" in Russian; I also know that I'm not speaking Russian. Likewise, I think, for when I write about a Captain in the American Navy in standard English; I now know the title is abbreviated CAPT in Navy jargon, but that doesn't make it incorrect, ill-mannered, or clueless for me to use the standard English abbreviation Capt. when I'm writing in standard English.
12.17.2007 6:01pm
JZB (mail):
Dr. Oliver -
Invitations to a change of command or retirement, probably some civilians. To a command holiday party, only military members, spouses, and the occasional civilian employee. But the point is that the CAPT usage is for internal military correspondence and the standard English convention is used for official business that is not strictly internal, even when the presumed audience is likely familiar with military conventions. If you want to use CAPT in all contexts (at risk of seeming affected) then fine, go ahead. Your preference does not, however, make everyone else wrong, ignorant, or disrespectful when following standard English usage in a civilian context.
12.17.2007 6:45pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"Your preference does not, however, make everyone else wrong, ignorant, or disrespectful when following standard English usage in a civilian context."

As I noted, it depends on the audience. Clearly it is something that concerns more than me -- I'm not the one who brought this up. As I have stated many times before, it is clear that there are a number of military types who note it and some who note it and respond negatively. Mr. Volokh is quite within his rights to tell them to go to hell, and you are quite right to note that I am no position to dictate anything to anyone what they must do (nor would I). All I'm saying is that his position is guaranteed to generate a negative reaction among some part of his audience.

As I stated, he "can choose to accomodate that audience or not, but arguments of "correctness" in some abstract sense don't address it at all, and many of that audience will have a different measure of "correctness" than [he]."

Saying that folk are wrong to react the way they react doesn't change that reaction.
12.17.2007 7:10pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"But that's in the special case where he's essentially omitting a title. I'm speaking about translating the title -- as in my "polkovnik" hypo."

I'm not sure it's worth flogging this much more. We are writing across each other. You are, rather correctly for your perspective, writing like a lawyer. I am writing as a propagandist. Your position is that you should do what is correct by some particular set of rules. My position is that such rules are local and the "correct" thing to do is that which accomplishes the suasion of a target audience.

What is "correct" in a social situation -- including writing -- is not always something you get out of a book. Sometimes it's subtle. When I lived in Washington, DC, everybody came to our front door. When I moved to rural Georgia, I noticed our house had *two* front doors -- a big one and a small one. I asked our real estate agent about that and was told that the small front door was really a "side door." I said "but they're right next to each other." She replied "No. Notice that the porch in front of the side door is a step lower than the porch in front of the front door." I shrugged. Whatever.

Later, I found out that which door people used when visiting was a statement about how they viewed their relationship to my family. People we knew came to the side door exclusively. Tradesmen used the front door the first time they came, and the side door after that. Salesmen used the front door exclusively. So much for this part of Southern Appalacia. I'm sure it's different in the tidewater.

I'm not sure exactly which book one uses to determine the proper door to knock on when visiting my house. And even if you found one, I don't think that appealing to it will mean much. I won't even get started on what I've been told is the "correct" pronunciation of certain words around here.

Instead, what is "correct" is something that you observe in a particular environment. If you want to get along, you modify your behavior to accommodate that environment. What is "correct" is that which appeals to the people you target in your writing. Some military people could care less how you write things. Obviously from these comments, some military people do -- otherwise you would not have been corrected.

My argument is simply that the "correct" response is that which will satisfy the broadest audience. "Correctly" or "incorrectly," the perceptions by some respondents are as I've described. I don't need to go through them again. Arguing that they are incorrect to be dissatisfied doesn't address that -- and conversely, my noting that they remain dissatisfied doesn't really address your argument that by the standard you quote they are "incorrect" to respond the way they do. It simply is what it is, and you must choose whether to be "correct" by your standard, or to be accommodating.
12.17.2007 7:56pm
neurodoc:
Boyd: I won't even get started about the history of rank names for O-7 and O-8 in the Navy...
Rear admirals of the upper half and those of the lower half? Oh please do! (It was "Commodore Perry," wasn't it? But "Commodore" always makes me think of the head of the yacht club rather than someone in command of ships and fight forces.)
12.17.2007 10:33pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
Commodore is traditionally not a rank, it is the title of a position. The commanding officer of a ship is always addressed as "Captain" even if he's an ensign. Thus, men in certain positions, such as the guy in charge of a navy destroyer squadron, are called Commodore. That's kind of why some didn't like the rear admiral being changed to commodore. The reason for the change was that the navy called its first two admiral pay grades "rear admiral" and thus their O-7 rear admirals were given all the privileges of an O-8. Thus, after the brief commodore fiasco, was born the rear admiral (lower half). Not a very graceful name for a rank but it kept the other services happy. I always have this urge to call them "ralph."
12.17.2007 11:42pm
Lev:

The commanding officer of a ship is always addressed as "Captain" even if he's an ensign.



So we have Capt., CAPT, CPT, and "Captain"?
12.18.2007 3:05am
Tracy W (mail):
Sorry William Oliver I'm still lost. If we are agreed that knowing the difference between CAPT and Capt is not the only thing people in the armed forces know, then what is your point?

I don't think that cluelessness and ignorance are virtues, but I find them unavoidable in most areas of life. May I ask what your secret is for being an expert on everything?
12.18.2007 4:07am
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"May I ask what your secret is for being an expert on everything?"

I never made that claim. If you don't get my point by now, I don't think much good will be accomoplished by me restating it again.
12.18.2007 8:22am