The Lowercase Tea Party

I’ve made a practice of, and faced criticism for, referring to the “tea party” and affiliated organizations in lower-case. To bring some resolution to the issue, here, in full, is my reasoning.

Capitalization denotes a proper noun, as in, an actual person, group, or an otherwise unique entity. I’m writing from New York city (“city” is not capitalized, because the name of the city is “New York”), I’m a lawyer at Unnamed Law Firm LLP, and I live in Manhattan. Therefore, none would doubt the proper capitalization of the Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Nation, the National Tea Party Federation, or the The Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, all of whom exist, and claim to be the central group representing the tea party philosophy.

Similarly, I capitalize the National Resources Defense Council, Riverkeepers, Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Defenders of Wildlife. I’d also capitalize the Republican Party, the Chamber of Commerce, the Cato Institute, and the Federalist Society. But I would not capitalize the green movement, or the conservative movement, and I do not capitalize the tea party movement.

Ideologies, unless denoted by an otherwise proper noun or somehow historically unique, do not receive capitalization. I’ve never capitalized the progressive movement (although Glenn Beck does), but I would capitalize the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution (understood by connotation to denote the period from the late 1700s to the late 1800s), and the New Deal. Similarly, unless the tea party movement is somehow canonized alongside such events, I will continue to not capitalize it.

I do not respect the tea party movement — their motivations, maybe, but hardly their hypocritical and nonserious execution — but this grammatical choice is not intended to convey that disrespect. However, should the various tea party groups manage to unite behind a single banner and present a unified front, rather than looking and acting like a barely-organized partisan front, maybe they’d deserve capitalization. But still not respect.

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28 comments

  1. “Capitalization denotes a proper noun, as in, an actual person, group, or an otherwise unique entity.”

    Or a specific event, such as the Battle of the Bulge. The Tea Party movement takes its name from a specific event in American history i.e. the Boston Tea Party which is always capitalized in history books. If they had decided to call themselves the Deleware movement after the first state in the union, would you call them the ‘deleware movement’? The capitalization doesn’t refer to the formality of the movement but rather the specific event they named themselves after.

    And I’m going to repeat here once again that the only reason I care is because it’s passive-aggressive nonsense.

  2. For no particular reason, this reminds me of ancient Imperial Chinese court protocol (there’s a phrase you don’t see every day), which mandated that when addressing the Imperial Majesty in writing, using the pronoun 臣 (‘chén’, “your lowly servant”), that particular character had to be written at half the size of the rest of the characters in the letter – to signify the lowly status of the petitioner relative to the Imperial Presence, of course.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that anywhere outside of the Ming dynasty, this is a really, really silly thing to complain about, bordering on the downright whiny.

  3. From Philip B. Corbett, standards editor at the NY Times:

    “Uppercasing “Tea Party” isn’t a political judgment, or really even a substantive one — just a style decision, a question of clarity and appearance. In my view, it looks odd and distracting to refer to a lowercase “tea party.” As a common noun, a “tea party” is a gathering where tea is served, or something Alice would attend. And of course, the intended reference is to the Boston Tea Party, which we uppercase as a specific historical event.

    Granted, it’s not a formal organization like the Republican Party. But I would think of “Tea Party” as more akin to, say, a nickname than to a generic, common noun. Or you could compare it to an artistic movement — we uppercase “Impressionism,” though it’s not a legal organization or even a proper noun, strictly speaking.

    Some other news organizations put Tea Party in quotes, or use phrases like “so-called,” etc. I think uppercasing is the simplest stylistic solution.”

    1. That is not really generally applicable, because obviously styles (and manuals thereof) differ in such respects. The Chicago MoS, for instance, recommends lower case because it’s not an established party.

      Besides, if uppercasing tEa PaRtY Is not a political or substantive judgement, the surely neither is lowercasing it? Still, pretty silly.

      1. I think ‘silly’ is in the eye of the beholder. You’re welcome to simply ignore the conversation.

        1. Nah, I’m sort of interested now. Why is it substantive to lowercase it, but not substantive to uppercase it? That doesn’t make sense.

          1. Well of course it’s a judgement call either way – but I think a deliberately negative one to go with lowercase given the obvious reference to the Boston Tea Party.

            1. So you’re saying that the Chicago Manual of Style is out to disparage the tea party? Really?

              (Lowercased because this post was written using the CMS, 16th ed.)

              1. I’m saying our host is.

                1. They’re using exactly the same reasoning, that the tea party is not an established group. What’s the difference? Or how do we know that our host is not, in fact, using/I> the CMS in writing his posts here?

                  1. So then answer this question: If they called themselves the Battle of the Bulge movement would you use lowercase?

                    1. I think we both know that any such movement would immediately renamed to the “bulge movement” or possibly “bulgers” by the public consiousness. And it would be exactly the same.

                      As for what I’d do, unless I actually write for money and have an editor who’ll kick my arse if I don’t follow the style manual, I don’t really give it that much thought. Sometimes it depends on what I had for breakfast.

                    2. What if it was a shorter name, like the Deleware Movement?

                    3. I’d have to email the editors about that one. But, you know, even if the [d/D]elaware movement were dedicated to the promotion of sunshine and fluffy little kittens, I’d still ultimately make that call based on style, not on any judgement of its merits or demerits.

                    4. Well my understanding of ‘style’ with regards to grammar is that historic events should be capitalized. Movements named after historic events should, IMO, be capitalized for the exact same reason.

  4. Besides, their reference to the specific Boston Tea Party is oblique and somewhat obscured. If it was the Boston Tea Party Society, that’d be different; or the Boston Tea Party movement, but it’s not.

    1. Obscured in what way? Anyone with even a passing understanding of US history understands the reference. Using lower case actually confuses the issue more because it makes it unclear if we’re talking about the historical event or cucumber sandwiches with your Aunt Matilda.

  5. Well my understanding of ‘style’ with regards to grammar is that historic events should be capitalized. Movements named after historic events should, IMO, be capitalized for the exact same reason.

    You are free to do that in your own work, of course, but other publications have different approaches.

    In all cases, the ultimate goal is consistency and readability, and considering that our host has now clearly explained his approach, and that several major publications do exactly the same thing, it seems a little disingenious to claim that in this specific instance it is an indication of bad faith.

    1. I don’t think it’s disingenious. I’m saying that in this specific case Ames’ reasons are not about his perception of grammar and completely about his desire to trivialize the Tea Party movement. It’s no different than his oscilating views on what criteria give a specific conservative clout.

      The larger point is that with Ames everything he writes is a calculated move to support the Democratic party. This is just another example.

      1. I have a really hard time seeing how a simple question of capitalization can in any way “support the Democratic party”, particularly when the AP does the same thing in every single of their bulletins about the [T/t]ea [P/p]arty.

        Does this work for other movement, too? Do I push the free world just a little bit further towards the brink if I write “Communism” instead of “communism” or “Islamism” rather than “islamism”? Do I, as a writer, truly possess that power?

        1. The AP is (in theory) a non-partisan organization. Do you have the same opinion of this blog?

          1. This is clearly a Democratic blog, but that doesn’t really answer the question.

            1. I think Ames believes that every little blog is contributing to the Cause. I say good for him but that means every decision in his writing deserves scrutiny. Also, he’s in a writing-heavy profession. You and I both know words matter.

              1. I still don’t understand what the practical implications of this non-capitalization are. How specifically does this support the Democrats or hurt the tea partiers?

                Do you suppose a potential tea party voter might come across this blog and go “Oh dear, he’s writing the name in the lower case. I’d better vote for a Democrat next time”?

                1. Do you think a potential Obama voter is going to be swayed to change their vote by anything an amateur blogger writes? If we don’t think we have some little glimmer of making an impact, why do it? When I’m writing posts on my blog I certainly choose my words carefully for that very reason.

                  It’s along the same lines of saying, “The Tea Party has been co-opted by the Republican establishment.” It’s an effort to minimize or the very real influence they have had in a very short time.

                  It’s also sort of like Obama firing off a speech yesterday where he praised Mitt Romney for having the same insights on healthcare as the Left. Obviously there is a very calculated reason he did that.

                  1. Yes, yes, but this is capitalization we’re talking about. Is the tea party really such a fragile little flower that it is perceptibly diminished by being put in lower case? Should we add some more capitals to it, just in case: “TEa PArty”?

                    (By the way, personally I think it’s rather the Republican party that has been co-opted by the tea partiers.)

  6. Why hyphenate “lower-case” and “barely-organized”? I do agree with your reasoning, and I’m certainly no fan of the movement myself. But when you produce prescriptive didactics on a fringe capitalization topic, it takes away from your credibility that you’ve failed to take heed of more well-established stylistic rules.

    Just my “two-cents.”

    1. Haha. Zing?

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