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I'm editing a chapter of a novel translated from Chinese, where kinship terms are often used as a form of address replacing a name. In this case, the speaker is referring to another woman as "sister-in-law". I was wondering if that would be capitalized as "Sister-in-Law", "Sister-In-Law", or "Sister-in-law"?

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    When, say, "brother" is used as a term of address - Please help me, brother it's not normally capitalised at all. But based on Commander-in-Chief... Jul 31 '20 at 11:05
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    ...I suggest you go for the "title case" version Sister-in-Law (which unlike "CamelCase" doesn't capitalise "noise words" such as prepositions). But it's really the writer's choice (or the choice of his favoured Style Guide). Jul 31 '20 at 11:07
  • @FumbleFingers: that would make a good answer. Jul 31 '20 at 12:39
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When, say, "brother" is used as a term of address (Please help me, brother!) it's not normally capitalised at all.

But based on Commander-in-Chief, I suggest you go for the "title case" version Sister-in-Law (which unlike "CamelCase" doesn't capitalise "noise words" such as prepositions). It's really the writer's choice though (or the choice of his favoured Style Guide).


For what it's worth, here's an NGram usage chart showing how usage has shifted significantly over the decades, as regards capitalising "Mother" when it's being used as a proper noun...

enter image description here

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  • The examples involving brother may be of limited relevance here, because, in many of them, the word is used for a fellow member of the same broad social group, rather than a member of one's family, and that may affect capitalisation.
    – jsw29
    Jul 31 '20 at 15:18
  • @jsw29: Yes, that's why I switched to "mother" for my chart showing the usage in true "proper noun" contexts. There simply wouldn't be enough of those to chart for brother or sister, let alone the -in-law versions. But I think my chart makes it pretty clear that for the true proper noun, capitalising is now easily the most favoured orthography (which it wasn't, a century ago), so the only remaining issue is whether to also capitalise in and law. Which is a separate issue entirely dealt with by how we write "Commander-in-Chief", imho. Jul 31 '20 at 16:37
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Pertaining to the number of books I have read, I have not seen the familial terms being written in title case or camel case or capital case for the matter of fact. Though it is a noun, it is not capitalized unless for being used in specific cases, like writing the word for calligraphy purposes.

Military resistance was organized by Sidonius’s brother-in-law, Ecdicius, son of the emperor Avitus.

Hope this helps.

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    You mean you've never seen Mother and Father capitalized in novels? True, we don't often capitalize brother, and never capitalize sister-in-law, but the translator probably knows this, and has decided that in order to best convey the flavor of the original, sister-in-law should be capitalized in certain cases. The editor of the novel wants to know how it should be capitalized. They're probably not going to question the translator's decision (which I think is quite reasonable) to capitalize it. Jul 31 '20 at 12:50
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    @PeterShor Seen if the terms are used at the beginning of sentences, don't remember seeing them otherwise. Also you are right. They will not question the writer's decision of doing so. In that case, the best would be to use the same case as in the language they are translating it from. I think that's the most logical and reasonable thing to do. And I believe every language has capital case and small case letters (pardon me if there exists such language without distinct letter, because I don't know every language in the world.) Jul 31 '20 at 13:07
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    Usually, Father, Mother, Mom, Dad, Grandfather, Grampa, etc. are capitalized if they are used as forms of address (i.e., Can I go to the movies, Mom?) Generally, brother, sister, grandson, and sister-in-law aren't, but they're also much less common in English as forms of direct address. I think I've seen aunt and uncle used both ways. See this Grammarly webpage. Jul 31 '20 at 13:28
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    @PeterShor Thanks for that link. It is really informative. I see my mistake. Passive voice usually use small case letters and active case uses the title case ones. I got really confused about the casings. I should probably work more on my grammar. But yes, you are correct. Thank you so much. Sorry for the inconvenience caused. Jul 31 '20 at 13:40
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I'm not aware of any capitalization of familial names in English (aside from when used at a beginning of the sentence of course). Positions of high honor, like the president of a country of 300+ million people are capitalized, but unless you're going for hyperbole, stay lower-case for familial names.

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