Who Died and Made the AP Stylebook Editorial God Over Astronomy?


This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows an uptight editor, but I love my job.

How can I not when I’m constantly learning? Every editorial client I’m privileged to work with brings me new material to soak up, expanding my knowledge base in the process. Whether it’s business philosophies, football commentaries or market evaluations, I’m always absorbing something new.

That’s exceptionally true of Home School Astronomy, a phenomenal instructional guide on what’s out there beyond our planet. Home School Astronomy provides PowerPoint presentations on everything from galactic phenomena like pulsars to the exact composition of the Sun.

I finally even understand why Pluto isn’t a planet! I still don’t like it. But at least I understand.

Of course, every field of specialty or job occupation has its own jargon – a learning experience in and of itself. And, as I just discovered, it can also have its own idea of what to capitalize and what not to.

For example, according to Home School Astronomy, I learned that astronomers capitalize the word “Sun” when referring to the single star we orbit. So out of respect for my client, I’ve been making sure to follow that guideline, no matter that the AP Stylebook I typically follow says otherwise.

I was also pretty sure I was supposed to capitalize “Moon,” but since I couldn’t quite remember, I did a quick search, only to find a fascinating article by Paul D. Spudis at the Air & Space Museum Smithsonian website. The article’s name?

moon vs. Moon: A Study in Arrant Pedantry – To capitalize, or not to capitalize? That is the question.

You have no idea how much I’d like to quote the whole article considering Spudis’ entertaining editorial flair for the snippish. But here, at least, are his opening lines:

When you write, do you capitalize the word “Moon?” And by this, I mean Earth’s Moon, Luna, the natural satellite of our home planet. Well, believe it or not, some of the longest, most vociferous, and yes – the dumbest – arguments I’ve ever had were over this issue.

Am I the only one who loves this guy already? If you’re not with me yet, keep on reading:

In the preface of my book, The Once and Future Moon, I argued over a decade ago that the Moon was one of the largest satellites in the Solar System, our first destination off the Earth and mankind’s future home and thus, deserved the dignity of capitalization. I proceeded to capitalize the word “Moon” ever afterwards, except when I write for the press, which obstinately insists that it should be “moon” and ruthlessly proceeds to change all my brilliant text. Why do so many editors insist upon this obnoxious practice? Apparently because the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook says so. To quote the black book of AP style directly:

AP capitalizes the proper names of planets, including Earth, stars, constellations, etc., but lowercases sun and moon.

Uh, OK. I guess that settles that…

He goes on to note that every single one of the planets have Latin names, whereas the “Earth, Moon and Sun” trace their nomenclatures to Germanic vocabulary. But the AP Stylebook decision to not capitalize sun and moon can’t be blamed on some misfortune of etymology, since Earth is still capitalized.

Spudis theorizes that:

…some classically educated nit-picker who was forced to sit through endless hours on the joys of the ablative absolute in Latin class decided that the Roman-named objects of the Universe were worthy of linguistic worship, but the vulgar, barbarian Germanic names given to those other three bodies did not deserve to be capitalized.

Now, reading his larger piece over, including what’s copied and pasted here, my editorial tendencies did kick in several times. There were grammatical decisions I took issue with and word arrangements I would have loved to tweak. Plus, nitpicker is one word. It’s not hyphenated.

Then again, this article was written way back in 2009. So maybe it used to be hyphenated. I mean, the English language and its rules do change over time.

For that matter, the AP Stylebook itself seems to change half a dozen rules every other month. This word should be hyphenated. That number should be spelled out. “Over” should never be used unless it’s in reference to physical positioning.

Which begs the question: Who died and made the AP Stylebook God?

The answer, of course, is nobody. Which means that Paul D. Spudis is entirely correct in calling it out. If the very field that studies outer space says to capitalize Sun and Moon – both proper nouns when referring to our Sun and Moon – then, by golly, let’s capitalize them!

Let the AP Stylebook make the rules when it comes to grammatical issues (though I think it goes overboard with those too). And you field experts and specialists can determine whether “Moon” and “Sun” are capitalized.

Because despite what it likes to think, God didn’t abdicate his position to the AP Stylebook. Editors, wake up and smell reality.

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