Yesterday I came across the following sentence, using "french" fries in lowercase, in an exercise book for non-native speakers of English:

We ordered two "french" fries and two apple pies.

So I have googled "(f)rench fries" in lowercase. To my surprise, l have found out that both styles are used, lowercase and uppercase. My question is: which style is more appropriate in formal writing?

  • 3
    The older question was closed, propbably, for lack of research, but it has the answer you're looking for: Is the “B” in Brussels Sprouts capitalized?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 4 '17 at 7:11
  • 1
    Also related: When should types of cheese be capitalized?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 4 '17 at 7:14
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    In formal writing, I would really choose lowercase, I believe that anglophones no longer consider french fries to be French, they just describe a type of fried chip. Whereas Italian wine and Chinese takeaway tells you the origin of the product, (although a Chinese takeaway can be found in any part of the world) I would in any case capitalise the first word (adjective).
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 4 '17 at 7:29
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    @BillJ sloppy? That's just your personal opinion, isn't it? Care to prove that statement? Do you always capitalise the words Biro, Hoover, Google, and the Internet? I do for the latter two but I don't sneer at anyone who doesn't. Once upon a time email was written e-mail that became obsolete pretty quickly. I see gorgonzola cheese in lowercase, never crossed my mind to say that the producer or the maker was sloppy.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 4 '17 at 8:29
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    @BillJ no. I found your statement annoying and supercilious. Look at the question and its answer which I linked above.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 4 '17 at 8:33

Generally speaking, the lowercase spelling has the upperhand (ho, ho, ho)

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But according to Google books Ngram, the Brits use either indistinctively.

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However, Ngram is not really indicative of spelling preferences because many of the results are from book titles, where it is conventional to capitalise nearly every word. e.g More Than Just French Fries, Who Ate My French Fries?, and French Fries: The Ultimate Recipe Guide etc.

So lets take a look at Google Scholar and find out what they have to say

Again, I suspect that many of the uppercase results are tied to titles.

Conclusion? Neither is wrong, go with your personal preference.


More references, and support. Yikes! I am about to cite Grammar Girl (a few venerable members on EL&U consider her “tips” to, erm... lack authority). Miss Mignon Fogarty writes

Although we often capitalize a country or city name when it’s part of a food name, that’s not always the case, and it’s typically not the case with french fries. Most sources say to keep it lowercase.

  • The reasoning given by the AP Stylebook* writers is that french describes the style of cut and doesn’t refer directly to the country.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style also recommends keeping french lowercase because french isn’t being used to literally refer to the country.

  • They give swiss cheese as another example—it’s lowercase because it’s not made in Switzerland. It’s named after a cheese called Emmental, which it resembles and which is made in Switzerland. It is capitalized because the name does relate directly to the Emmental region where the cheese originated.

On the other hand, four out of five examples of the phrase french fries in the Oxford English Dictionary have the word french capitalized, and the entry in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary has french fry lowercase, but notes that french is often capitalized.

  • Yes except that with or without a capital, 'french fries' is still used by Brits mainly on pretentious restaurateurs… Apr 18 '17 at 18:30

Whether or not to capitalize "french" in this instance is a matter of style. Both the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style do indeed recommend using lower case (not citing "Grammar Girl," but read it myself back when I had subscriptions), but McDonald's and Burger King both capitalize it in their promotional materials.

Based on my own observations, if the usage of a proper noun becomes sufficiently distant in meaning from the proper noun itself, the capital tends to drop off. Whether it has become sufficiently distant or not is a matter of opinion, of course, so there will generally be variations.

Some cursory nGram research (allowing titles and beginnings of sentences to skew the results) suggests that herculean task and Herculean task are about equally common over time, fluctuating back and forth in popularity. Swiss cheese is more common than swiss cheese, but the latter is fairly common. And body english began showing up around 1940. The lowercase was more common for a few years, and quickly fell out of favor as the term became increasingly popular; body english is still used, but at present it's only a fraction as popular as body English.

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    It would be wonderful to see excerpts from the references you cite. May 4 '18 at 3:45
  • What corpora/software did you use to get the results you mention in paragraph 3?
    – Laurel
    May 4 '18 at 5:15
  • @Laurel1 I just used google ngram viewer. You can enter things like "Herculean, herculean" and get a graph. You can then look at examples in google books. Mari-Lou A's answer uses it.
    – BobRodes
    May 4 '18 at 6:45
  • @user9825893y50932 Yes, I would like to do that, too, but I don't have subscriptions to the AP and Chicago stylebooks at present, and if I did, I would have to agree not to quote them directly here AFAIK. If you follow the link in Mari-Lou A's answer, you'll see the links to the style manuals in the GrammarGirl article, if you should wish to take out a subscription in either or both.
    – BobRodes
    May 4 '18 at 6:52

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