This question about alien species and planets brought up something I've been thinking about on and off for years.

We capitalize names of alien races like Vulcan, Timelord, Cylon (well, maybe not alien), Krell, Nox, Minbari, and so on, but we never capitalize human.

So how did we end up capitalizing names for sentient species when we don't do that for our own race?

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    The title would have been funnier if you had left "our own" all lowercase ;) – Daniel Nov 4 '11 at 20:06
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    Maybe you wacky sci-fi people like to capitalize everything, but here in fantasyland our elves, dwarves, dragons, centaurs, merfolk, and other non-human human-rivals are all lowercase. – jwodder Nov 4 '11 at 23:51
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    @jwodder Yeah, but see, elves, dwarves, dragons and the like all live on the planet with us. Otherwise, they'd be Vulcan elves, Skrullian dwarves, and Alderanian dragons. – Kit Z. Fox Nov 5 '11 at 0:25
  • Mike Resnick's works have always capitalized "Man" as the name of our species. Probably not coincidentally, they also often feature other species talking about Man. – user2400 Nov 5 '11 at 22:06
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    Keep in mind that none of those others exist. – Hot Licks Jan 3 '16 at 21:15

Most of the names you give are derived from proper place names, or clan names, or such, so using "human" as a comparison is not accurate.

For instance, Vulcan and Minbari are named for their planets. We would capitalize Terran likewise (or Earthling or Martian).

Also Krell, Nox, and Timelord are groups of peoples (my apologies for not using a panxenic term, but "beings" was too confusing). We would likewise capitalize Irish, Passamaquoddy, Vandals, etc. (And naturally, Timelords are Gallifreyan, just as Mongols are Terran.) Or if you consider them more like ethnicities, you would still capitalize them, like you do with Jewish, Native American, Latina, etc.

Also, in response to Vulcans born off-world as still being Vulcans, I'd make the argument that Asians born in America (for instance) are still often called Asian, or Asian-American.

And finally, I think and I know I may well be dunned for it, that Cylon was a "brand" name for the original cybernetic organisms. And we would likewise capitalize Sunbeam, Keurig, General Electric, etc.

So then by example, human is not capitalized because it is not a proper noun, and not derived from a proper noun. Vulcans, Minbari, and Timelords are humanoid beings. There are also reptilian beings, silicon beings, and energy beings, but we don't capitalize any of those types of beings (human, humanoid, reptilian, silicon, energy, etc).

It is a good question, though. Here is a discussion that you may find interesting.

  • And thanks for the link, too. I'm glad to see I'm not the only writer to have pondered this. – TangoOversway Nov 4 '11 at 18:14
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    Branding is important if you're going to take over the human race – Ben Brocka Nov 4 '11 at 19:05
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    I find groups of beings awfully vague, especially now that this is an EL&U question. Are humans not a group of beings? Also, the Irish come from Ireland; thus they fall under the Vulcan example. It is more debatable whether the Vandals are named after their place of origin. – John Y Nov 4 '11 at 21:13
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    @TangoOversway: Personally, I would capitalize Gallifreyans but not capitalize time lord. But that's just me. (I recognize that it is customary to capitalize Time Lord.) – John Y Nov 4 '11 at 21:51
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    Back when people were much more racist than they are today, the different "races" were all capitalized –– e.g., Negro, Caucasian, Oriental. I am sure this had an influence on this practice. – Peter Shor Nov 5 '11 at 14:24

Actually, I think some writers in some contexts would capitalize "Human", especially in the context of interstellar sentient races, just as some writers capitalize Earth when referring to the planet in the context of other named planets.

I think the case for not capitalizing human is that we normally use it as a common noun, not a proper one. For example, we would write "there are people over there". We could just as well write "there are humans over there", but we wouldn't use "there are People over there".

I'm actually all for capitalizing Human and Earth in science fiction, though some writers will opt for different words instead, such as Terran (as mentioned in Kit's answer), so that the "properness" of the name is clearer.

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    The planet Earth is generally capitalized, not only in fiction. "Some writers capitalize Earth when referring to the planet" is therefore not correct – they all do that. – Felix Dombek Nov 4 '11 at 21:37
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    The more I think about this question, the more I think the easiest solution is to just start capitalizing Human when it refers to the species and using "human" when referring to behavior or other loose usage. – Tango Nov 4 '11 at 21:38
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    @Felix: No, I have definitely seen writers use earth to mean the planet Earth, both generally and in science fiction. I fully agree that it should be capitalized (and if I were an editor, I would insist on it), but in the real world, many writers simply don't. – John Y Nov 4 '11 at 21:46
  • This has been (inconclusively) discussed: english.stackexchange.com/q/2286/8019 – Tim Lymington Nov 5 '11 at 13:08

Capitalization has nothing to do with conventions in any particular genre. In English, we capitalize proper nouns and adjectives derived from proper nouns. Vulcan, Earthling, and Venusian are all adjectives derived from the proper nouns Vulcan Earth, and Venus. Human is not a proper noun, any more the elf, dwarf, people, or purple-people-eater.

We capitalize Earth (or Venus, or Mars, or Terra, or Cygnus-XYJ) when referring to a planet, celestial body, or crazed celebrity brand pseudonym, because those would all be proper nouns. We do not capitalize earth when we mean dust or soil.

Incidentally, we capitalize Elf when we are referring to the movie, and I suppose if we were to start talking about the main character's dizzy, breathless wonder as "a thing" we might describe someone, somewhere, as being Elfian, but please don't.

I have a related post at http://wp.me/p1RPTJ-6x

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