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.

Aside from proper noun usage, like "We're on a mission from God", when should "God" be capitalized? A few examples:

  • That's a god awful question.
  • Oh my god!
  • No god-damn way.
  • He played the part of the cannibal god

It occurs to me that whenever used for decisive emphasis, by referencing deity, it is effectively functioning as a proper noun as well? For comparison:

  • That's a really awful question.
  • Oh my stars!
  • (no viable equivalent)
  • He played the part of the cannibal chief

PLEASE, no rants or tangents. This is a grammar question.

share|improve this question
6  
There are not many ranters or tangenters on this site. –  delete Sep 17 '10 at 0:13
1  
By the way, am I correct in assuming that capitalization is an aspect of grammar? –  Chris Noe Sep 17 '10 at 1:49
3  
Quoting Wikipedia: "Linguists do not normally use the term ['grammar'] to refer to orthographical rules, although usage books and style guides that call themselves grammars may also refer to spelling and punctuation." –  RegDwigнt Sep 17 '10 at 2:21
2  
@RegDwight, I will note that chapter 20 of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, a grammar written by the most descriptivist of academic linguists, is about punctuation, which also includes discussions of capitalization and orthography. –  nohat Sep 17 '10 at 19:02
    
@nohat: duly noted. –  RegDwigнt Sep 17 '10 at 20:15
show 1 more comment

4 Answers 4

up vote 30 down vote accepted

To summarize the proper noun/common noun usage, I think the easiest way to handle the situation is to capitalize the word god when it is used as a proper name as the name of the god of a monotheistic religion, such as the god of Christianity or Judaism, and not capitalize it when it is used as a common noun:

Christians are supposed to follow what God wants them to do.

Christians are supposed to follow what their god wants them to do.

I think this article from the About.com site about agnosticism and atheism discusses the issue of when to capitalize god quite cogently.

As for usage of the examples in the question, I looked in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and here’s what I found.

God-awful

  72 god-awful
  71 godawful
  28 God-awful
  10 Godawful
   7 god awful
   7 God awful

Overall, the hyphenated uncapitalized and unspaced uncapitalized forms are about equally common. The hyphenated capitalized form was the next most common, but significantly less common, followed by other rare variants.

Oh my God

For the first 1000 results for oh my god, they were divided like this:

 710 Oh my God
 139 Oh my god
  95 oh my God
  38 oh my god
  10 OH MY GOD
   7 Oh My God
   1 Oh my GOD

All variations of capitalization are used, but “Oh my God” is the most common by quite a large margin.

Goddamn

For the first 1000 incidences of goddamn, they were divided like this:

 770 goddamn
 218 Goddamn
  38 God damn
  27 god damn
  18 god-damn
  17 God-damn
  12 GODDAMN
   3 God-Damn
   2 God Damn
   1 GOD DAMN

183 examples of Goddamn occurred after punctuation—only 35 occurred after a word. Lowercase goddamn is dramatically more common. For the spaced variation, capitalization was more common than not, but for the hyphenated variation, they were equally divided between capitalizing and not. For goddamn, the unspaced variation is much more common than the variants with space and hyphen.

Cannibal god

For the final example, there were, of course, no incidences of cannibal god in the COCA, but I think this works best the same way as Roman, Greek, Norse, and Hindu gods—as a common noun, lowercased.

share|improve this answer
21  
"Capitalize the word god when it is used as a proper name as the name of the god of a monotheistic religion, such as the god of Christianity or Judaism, and not capitalize it when it is used as a common noun" -- spot on. What's not useful about that? –  Joel Spolsky Sep 17 '10 at 2:52
1  
@Joel: I was talking about the frequencies of usage. It's not clear to me that giving frequencies of one or the other form is a useful guide to what should be done. –  delete Sep 17 '10 at 3:52
9  
I included the statistical information so that readers can decide for themselves if they want to just follow how most people do it. In most cases, I think questioners with usage questions are best served by following the usage of the majority of writers. If they want to use a minority usage, then statistics help you understand how small of a minority the usage is. In my opinion, questions that ask how something “should” be written are best answered by modeling a majority usage. Of course that is just my opinion, but it’s where my answers come from. If people don’t like it, they’ll downvote it. –  nohat Sep 17 '10 at 5:02
1  
...I suppose I could be more explicit about what I expect readers to take away from the statistical information. –  nohat Sep 17 '10 at 5:06
1  
@C. Ross. LORD is pretty easy. The bible writers took out God's Hebrew name YHWH and replaced it with LORD, because they weren't sure how to pronounce it. This substitution is actually written in the foreward of most bibles. Some bibles kept the name at "Psalm 83:18" but recent versions have also eliminated this instance. –  Armstrongest Sep 17 '10 at 16:38
show 2 more comments

Two elements are at play here. The first is the grammatic issue of proper noun versus regular noun. In general, "God" with a capital G is a proper noun, whereas "god" is not. This is very similar to "mom" or "dad". ("Did Mom say not to eat any cookies?" vs. "Your mom said not to eat the cookies.")

The second influence comes from a Christian tradition of capitalizing the "G" any time the god in question is the God of the Bible, even when "god" is a regular noun in the sentence. This same practice is often used with personal pronouns referencing God as well ("You", "He"). This practice is not a hard and fast rule of grammar orthography, though it is a common practice, particularly among Christians.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I opened my "Oxford Writers' Dictionary" yet again and found God-awful, so they think that it should be capitalized and hyphenated. However they also use godlike and godless. There are several other examples in the dictionary, so it seems to be case-by-case.

I don't think anyone would suggest capitalizing "god" in

He played the part of the cannibal god

share|improve this answer
4  
The cannibals might, that is, if they speak English :) –  Chris Noe Sep 17 '10 at 0:33
1  
Well, the hypothetical deities referenced by godlike and godless could just as well be part of a pantheon as not, no? –  SamB May 3 '11 at 4:49
add comment

From a biblical point of view, the distinction is simple (in English).

God (in English) came to be written to represent the Monotheistic God of the bible, whereas "god" represented the polytheistic gods of the surrounding nations.

Pharaoah is called a "god". Ba'al was called a "god". Silver idols are called "gods", money is called a "god", Satan is called a "god".

It is of note, however, that in the original Hebrew, there is no capitalization present. Rather, they referred to "God" as el-o-him (God), or by his personal name YHWH (Commonly known as Jehovah in English, likely pronounced Yah-weh in Hebrew). This name distinguished him from the gods of the surrounding nations.

In THAT context, you COULD make an argument that depending on what "god" you mean, it could be capitalized. However, given that the bible's capitalization in English was added later (perhaps for clarity when reading) I would think lowercase is perfectly acceptable.

(How's that for a long-winded rant that ends where it began?)

share|improve this answer
add comment

protected by tchrist Jul 1 at 1:08

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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