I’m a traditionalist. I still have a landline. I kiss my bride at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day (when I’m awake for it). Our national pastime isn’t this newfangled foosball nonsense, it’s baseball — and day baseball at that. I lean traditional when it comes to grammar, too. I write text messages using proper spelling and punctuation. When someone tells me they’re doing good, I think, “Superman does good. You’re doing well.” (But I don’t say it out loud because I don’t want to be that guy.)
But I’ve read a lot of Grammar Girl, and I’ve come to see that much of what I’ve always thought of as grammar rules are actually styles. My traditionalist mindset says that rules are absolute, but style? Style is very personal. I must obey the speed limit, but don’t you dare tell me what I should wear. My clothes are an expression of me, man. This has led me to be much more accepting of new grammar styles than I once was. I’m cool with leaving the periods out of an abbreviation. I’ve accepted that, in typed text, it’s OK to put a single space between sentences instead of two. Singular “they”? It hasn’t always been my thing, but I’m open to giving it a try.
It’s from this perspective of English as a living language, and not something that stopped evolving with the death of Noah Webster, that I want to talk about heaven and hell. Or is it Heaven and Hell? Turns out that while organized religion might be considered one of the most traditionalist things around today, the grammar style used by many sects of Christianity is actually pretty modern.
His pronouns are simply divine
God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all capitalized because they’re proper names. I think pretty much everyone agrees on that. And despite the fact that the entirety of my education was in secular public schools, I was always taught the traditional style that pronouns referring to God are to be capitalized. My children’s Catholic homeschool English textbooks still teach this style. But I’ve noticed that this is no longer universally observed, even in some fairly pious places… like the Bible itself!
Here’s Matthew 2:2 from the New American Bible, the translation of the Bible used in the Catholic Mass readings in the United States: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Under traditional style, “king,” “his,” and “him” all should have been capitalized in that sentence, but they’re not. And this isn’t just a Catholic thing. A Bible translation comparison tool shows most Bible translations do not capitalize divine pronouns.
While the “capitalize all divine pronouns” style was no doubt implemented as a way of demonstrating respect for God, I assume readability concerns are what prompted the move away from it. Unorthodox capitalization is jarring. Authors and Bible editors probably decided (wisely) that they shouldn’t do anything to distract their readers from a religious text, especially scripture.
Are we trying to reach Heaven or heaven?
What about Heaven and Hell? They are the proper names of places, and therefore should be capitalized. Right? (Even a non-believer should agree with this, as the names of fictional places like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are capitalized.) I understood the move away from capitalized divine pronouns, but I was a little surprised to find that even amongst religious authors and editors, the common modern style is not to capitalize heaven and hell either.
Matthew 5:20 (NAB) reads, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Catechism of the Catholic Church 1024 reads, “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity — this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed — is called ‘heaven.'” And on the subject of the bad place, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1033 reads, “This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.'”
Why not capitalize heaven and hell? I note those Catechism definitions don’t call them places, instead labeling them a “perfect life” and a “state.” So are they not to be considered places, and therefore proper name capitalization rules do not apply to them? That’s a theological question outside the scope of this discussion. But it is worth noting that the New American Bible does capitalize one synonym for hell: Gehenna, as in Mark 9:43: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.”
The NAB footnotes indicate Gehenna comes from “Hebrew gê-hinnōm, ‘Valley of Hinnom,’ or gê ben-hinnōm, ‘Valley of the son of Hinnom,’ southwest of Jerusalem, the center of an idolatrous cult during the monarchy in which children were offered in sacrifice.” It’s the proper name of a place and therefore capitalized. As for Bibles other than the NAB, a BibleStudyTools.com comparison shows translations that use “Gehenna” or a different transliteration of the Hebrew word do capitalize it, though most versions of Mark 9:43 simply use “hell,” uncapitalized.
It seems the majority of religious sources say heaven and hell should not be capitalized. What about secular sources? Well, when I used Grammarly to look over this article, it flagged at least one use of uncapitalized heaven as a possible error. And Alanis Morissette said, “Isn’t it ironic?”
Do you reject Satan? And all his empty promises? And do you refuse to capitalize the name of the place where he lives?
The style an author uses says a lot about them, or at least about the tone they intend with that particular work. And that brings me to an observation I’ve made over and over — the observation that prompted me to write this article. I see it frequently. Here’s an example from the way the Act of Contrition is posted in my parish’s confessional:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of hell.
Did you notice the capitalized “Heaven” and uncapitalized “hell”? Aww yeah, this is the style I call “sticking it to the devil by withholding a capital.” The person who uses this style — and I’ll admit, at times in the past, that person has been me — is saying, “Heaven is worthy of capitalization, but hell is not.” Take that, Satan!
For my personal style on this matter, I’ve decided to take my lead from my church. Heaven and hell are not capitalized unless they’re at the beginning of a sentence. And God knows I love him even if I don’t capitalize pronouns that refer to him. But nor am I here to judge. If a fellow believer wants to capitalize divine pronouns or write of “Heaven” and “hell,” so be it. As Grammar Girl says in her TED talk, we are the ones who vote on new words and new styles, and we do it by using some and ignoring others.
But if you don’t use the Oxford comma, you are going to hell.