Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

This question already has an answer here:

It's been going on for some time, but the phenomenon which was once seen as almost an act of rebellion is now becoming more commonplace. God, capitalized, is increasingly seen only at the start of a sentence. Leaving aside whether one believes in a god, or in the Christian God Himself, why is this convention not being criticized?

God is after all a proper noun, the name of a deity which for over 2,000 years we have all heard of, and know by that very name. It matters not that god or God may or may not exist. It is a name. And like any other name that belongs to a real person or a fictional character in a book, it ought to be spelled with a capital letter.

I always feel uncomfortable writing about God with a capital letter, I always feel there is a hoard of die-hard atheists ready to accuse me of being a creationist, god forbid. (Should that have been: "..., God forbid"?)

Is the spelling of the Christian "God" politically incorrect? Is God with a capital letter, grammatically speaking, an archaic tradition? And if so, why?

EDIT: From the answers so far posted, no one has yet mentioned the political and social consequences this deceptively innocent, lowercase spelling may have had on us, on today's society. And this has lead me wondering, whether in the history of the English language there has been anything similar; any linguistic subversion, spoken or written which was in reality a show of defiance toward an established authority such as a government or political leader.

share|improve this question
If you're going to ask about the Christian God, could you use capital letters in the question title? –  Andrew Leach Sep 17 '13 at 10:12
It was a provocation, I admit. It looks odd to my eyes, and if I capitalize Christian God, in the title, I think my argument weakens. –  Mari-Lou A Sep 17 '13 at 10:17
I strongly suspect that this is just due to lazy writers. Lots of words are losing their capital letters as people don't bother hitting the shift key unless they really need to. Do you have evidence that this phenomenon is increasing in frequency? I certainly don't recall reading a piece of formal writing, not written by an atheist making a point about religion, where God is intentionally not capitalized where it would otherwise be. It is, as you say, a proper name or title which should be capitalized at least for disambiguation. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 17 '13 at 13:24
I'm not convinced that only atheists don't capitalize "god" but maybe also the less devout. I agree that it's a statement by that writer to communicate the degree of importance they assign to the deity. –  Kristina Lopez Sep 17 '13 at 16:31
I think you have to demonstrate a lot more solid evidence for your claims before I will feel that this question isn't just peeving. Show me the data that demonstrates that the Christian 'God' is trending to 'god', and then show me the data that demonstrates that this is some kind of atheist plot against Christians. And lastly, if you know the reasons why it is spelled with a capital letter, then you know the reasons you ought not care if a hoard of die-hard atheists pounces on you for being orthographically correct. –  KitFox Sep 17 '13 at 23:50
show 21 more comments

marked as duplicate by Mitch, Brian Hooper, Matt Эллен, Kristina Lopez, user49727 Sep 18 '13 at 19:02

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

There are more than a few cases that complicate the use of the words god and God.

The most obvious is that God is a proper noun used to name a particular god, and this leaves some possible difference as in:

Oh my God!

Oh my god!

Even if we were extremely strict to the use of capitals for God as a name, and assume the speaker is Christian (though if anything such exclamations should not be made by Christians in most contexts where they are heard), we could still consider either correct, the former addressing their god by name, the latter referring to Him by what He is.

Another issue is that god and God are used as a proper noun not just for the Christian god*, but for a variety of monotheistic concepts, including pantheism, deism, Neoplatonism and other concepts that combine monotheism and polytheism (consider the popularity in neopagan circles of Dion Fortune's forumla "All gods are one God, and all goddesses are one Goddess, and there is one Initiator"), and perhaps in particular in cases where one is deliberately quite vague and covering all such concepts. There are also translations from Eastern religion that use god or God with differing degrees with how well one could argue them relevant.

Now, here we may still use God with a captial as in the Fortune quote above (though Fortune was herself a Christian for all her unorthodoxy and would be inclined to mirror the conventions among them when not explicitly moving away from one for a reason). We might also though, use a non-captial form, as capitals are not always used with proper nouns (consider that when "history" is used as a proper noun as in "for all of history" it is normally not capitalised). This makes the form god also appropriate, especially the further we move from any precise view on which god is referred to, or in those cases in which the god believed in is not (or not necessarily) believed to be a person or persons in the same way that some religious views hold their god to be, making the capital form less applicable.

Now, if I say "god does not play dice" or "God does not play dice", which god do I refer to? Am I referring to the Judeo-Christian god because the man I am quoting was from a Jewish background, or am I being vauger since the phrase is after all figurative?

The answer in Western society is that it's somewhere between the two: We have a lot of different concepts of god and God both literal and figurative within our society, and we also have a strong influence of Christianity as the strongest religious influence in the English-speaking world for many centuries (with Judaism being the second strongest), but not the sole view; consider in particular the importance of Deism among Enlightenment thinkers whose influence on scientific, artistic and political thought persist to this day.

Some of this has been explicitly suggested too, mostly as justifications for religious intrusion into all manner of secular aspects of life with a claim that references to god do not necessarily refer to God.

Some of this is more implicit, when people of different beliefs - which may in themselves be quite vauge - speak in vague terms to each other.

So, it's quite sensible that we should end up with god and God both being used for the vaguely probably-Christian-but-perhaps-not-quite concept of divinity that is most often addressed.

And that's before we get to the fact that many people just simply won't care.

*Note that this is another point where I could validly use either, "the Christian god" meaning the god that Christians have and "the Christian God" meaning the god that the Christians have, who they refer to as God.

share|improve this answer
I planned to edit this to do so, and then undelete, but I haven't had time and won't today either, so I'm just undeleting. –  Jon Hanna Sep 19 '13 at 9:32
Thank you so much for undeleting your thoughtful and well argued answer, it would have been a sin if you had kept it hidden. :) –  Mari-Lou A Sep 19 '13 at 10:05
add comment

It's not uncommon to see god used to many any (hypothetical, even) god, but God for the Christian deity. It's not always clear whether the writer and the reader are referring to the same god, it's perfectly possible that the writer is using a phrase like "for god's sake", while not believing in God.

Added after clarification of question:

Between the two extremes there is a large area of personal opinion and style. I would never write the father, the son (jesus), and the holy spirit; "one god in three persons" (wikipedia:Trinity) (except that I just did for sake of a example). But I would be unlikely to write something like people who believe in a God, any God either. Phrases like "God forbid", etc. fall, for me, into this grey area. Then there are cross-cultural examples - I've heard "Oh gods, you wouldn't want to go the Delhi in the monsoon" - the phrase derived from the Christian god, the usage clearly modified.

There will always be militant atheists, and militant supporters of any religion, it's much easier to offend both at once than to offend neither. Don't forget that much of what's been said in this discussion would have been regarded as blasphemy in the past.

And there always christian vs. Christian as well!

share|improve this answer
add comment

I offer up this small point - I do not consider God to be a name, but a title, as in Sir or Queen, so in theory, it should be capitalized. I was raised Christian, but am, like many in the UK these days, not conventionally religious any more. I still, though, capitalize God if I'm referring to the Christian God directly, for differentiation purposes, but never at any other time, so 'oh my god' would be lower case. As for Jesus (quoted in ChrisH's answer), that is a name, and I always capitalize it.

UPDATE: Chris, my theory regarding God being a title is personal to me, it just seems logical. There have been many gods down the centuries, after all.

Regarding subversion and general rebellion (in the edited Question), there is a long tradition in the UK of this down the centuries. Lampoons, cartoons, printed pamphlets, newspapers, all of it, though I'm sure that's a worldwide practice wherever possible. But I don't believe the non capitalization of the Christian 'God' is a subversive or rebellious act. I'm sure it's come about because of the increasing secularity of society, particularly in the UK, compared to, say, 100 years ago. If 'God' is a meaningless concept to someone, I doubt they'll bother to capitalize the word, it's not important enough, or they may have other gods of their own. In other words, it's not a deliberate subversion which will have a dramatic effect on society, it's the other way around; a symptom of secularity. Curiously, though, I've never yet observed Jesus being spelt without the capital letter, even amongst non believers, which speaks to my theory about god being a title rather than a name. Although it's probably fair to say that non believers don't very often have cause to write Jesus in anything anyway.

I'll add here from my Comment - that any follower of a monotheistic religion will always capitalize the name of whichever god they worship.

share|improve this answer
But if this is why it's capitalized, then why do people write His or Him? I'm not saying your answer is wrong, but I'm not sure it tells the whole story. –  snailboat Sep 17 '13 at 13:57
Well, if you are a practising Christian, then both pronouns would be capitalized. As would Her...which is no less likely than Him, logically. But I'm sure anyone practising a monotheistic religion always capitalizes anything referring to their particular god. –  bamboo Sep 17 '13 at 16:20
My example - as I suspect you knew - was an extreme one, but the distinction between title and name is not clear as it would be for people. –  Chris H Sep 18 '13 at 7:46
add comment

Well, I've lost all patience with the militant atheists. I capitalize "god" according to how the usage best indicates and if someone gets offended, well, that is their problem, not mine. I don't deliberately seek to torque people off, but if I were to try to avoid all offense at all times, then I would be silent. Which, to some people, at least, would be a dearly-to-be-hoped-for outcome, but nevermind.

@bamboo is correct, "god" is not a proper name, for all that people treat it like one. The Hebrew and Christian god declined to be identified by name as a matter of general policy, so the generic term "god" came in as a way to refer to him, or even to talk to him, and in substitution for a name it became the custom to capitalize it, as if it were a name.

As to militant atheists, my very favorite is Pat Condell. He is a Brit, a former standup comedian (or perhaps he's still active in comedy, I'm not sure). He holds forth regularly on YouTube under his own name, so if you're interested you can check him out. His rants are almost always worth listening to, even if they are sometimes irritating to a theist.

I suppose it might be useful to point out that I am definitely a theist and a Christian, and a practicing one as well (and will continue to practice until I get it right).

Edited to Add: In response to the edit of the question, I have to say I have no knowledge of any historical capitalization wars with regard to names of Deity.

share|improve this answer
'bamboo is correct, "god" is not a proper name, for all that people treat it like one.' One could argue that 'treating a word as a proper noun' makes it one. In most cases, there is a strong element of user-definition in the words we use. However, I agree that here the usual factors informing insertion into a word (sub-)class - notional, syntactic/distributional, formal - may be trumped. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 17 '13 at 16:58
add comment

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.