Religious Terms

And lo, the proofreader corrected the spelling and the grammar, and she did separate sentence from sentence with proper punctuation. For six days she did this, and on the seventh day she did this also, for she worked freelance and could not afford to rest.

Don’t worry, we haven’t changed our style to reflect the apocalyptic times in which we live. We’re just feeling Biblical today because we’re taking a look at some religious terms and how to approach them when proofreading.

Heaven and Hell

Capitalisation can be tricky with some religious words. And while most people know to capitalise names of religions (e.g. Buddhism, Islam, Christianity), other terms are not so straightforward. Take heaven and hell, for example. Or should that be Heaven and Hell?

Ah, if only it were that simple.

Some style guides give advice on this, but they do not all agree. A good rule is to capitalise Heaven and Hell when they are used as proper nouns (i.e. as names of specific places). For example, some capitalise ‘Heaven’ when discussing the dwelling place of the Christian God:

Jesus is said to have ascended to Heaven.

Here, Heaven is a proper noun and is therefore capitalised. But this is not always the case. Sometimes it is written with a small ‘h’, even in the Bible:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Sometimes it is used more generically, such as when we say:

The heavens were lit by a billion stars.

And it can be used figuratively to refer to something pleasurable:

The chocolate cake was absolute heaven.

 So, in most cases, it is correct to write ‘heaven’ with a lower case ‘h’.

The same applies to Hell/hell, which is capitalised when it refers to the supposed abode of sinners but not when it refers to a three-hour commute in heavy traffic.

Highway to hell.

God and Gods

A similar issue exists with the word God/god. When it refers to the sole or main deity of a monotheistic or quasi-monotheistic religion, God should be capitalised. This is because it is a proper noun in such cases (i.e. Jesus’s dad is a god called God).

The Big ‘G’. 

God should also be capitalised in any case where it is part of the name of the deity in question. The same goes for Goddess, as in the Horned God and Great Goddess of Paganism.

Ol’ Hornie.

However, if god or goddess is not part of a name, the words are not capitalised:

Hinduism honours many gods and goddesses.

Jupiter was the Roman god of the sky.

The Passion and the Possessive…

…is what we’d call our religious epic if it ever got off the ground. That’s because we know the rollercoaster of excitement that ensues whenever someone tries to correctly write about something belonging to someone whose name ends in ‘s’. Yes, we’re talking about possessive apostrophes and if/when you need an extra ‘s’ afterwards.

This can be confusing due to the rule for plural possessives, where we also put an apostrophe after the final ‘s’. For instance, if we want to say that a convent belongs to some nuns, we could call it the nuns’ convent. But does the same apply if we are talking about one person? Say the convent is run by Sister Jones. Is it Sister Jones’ convent or Sister Jones’s convent?

She runs a very modern establishment.

 The solution to this problem is that often (as with the whole walking on water thing) there is one rule for Jesus and another for the rest of us. Or there used to be, at least.

In the past, some style guides suggested that classical (Greek and Roman) and Biblical names that end in ‘s’ only require an apostrophe to indicate possession, while other proper nouns that end in ‘s’ (e.g. James) should take an extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe. So we might refer to James’s local church, for instance, but make a petition in Jesus’ name.

However, this is now largely considered old-fashioned. The Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, recommends using apostrophe + ‘s’ after all nouns that end in ‘s’, regardless of their religious or classical status. This helps ensure consistency of punctuation.

Nevertheless, it is important to check whether your client is following a particular style guide. And if not, consistency, as always, is the key.

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