This is a question that came to mind from another post on this community. Not directly related to the question itself but by circumstance I developed a question.

The question was about the capitalization of elements. Paraphrasing: 'Should it be Sodium or sodium?'

The rule governing this set by the ACS in its IUPAC documentation has changed the rule at least twice. (not sure of all dates)

preceeding 1979 - don't capitalize

1979 - 2004 - capitalize

2004 - present - don't capitalize

Let's assume I wrote a document in 1999 describing the chemical elements of Sodium and Hydrogen, when it is advised to write them capitalized.

Now in the present year 2014, they should be lower-case: sodium and hydrogen.

In a circumstance like this, if we were to technically analyze and scrutinize this document presently, would we say this document is grammatically correct or incorrect? Why? Is there a rule that applies specifically to this technicality?

A document simply isn't out-dated because of old grammatical rules. If the information contained within is still relevant, then certainly, it would be a legitimate source.

  • 3
    A nitpick, but capitalization isn't a grammar problem, so the grammar remains unchanged.
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 6:40
  • IUPAC is not a trustworthy authority on grammar. For example, IUPAC claims that absolute temperatures and differences in absolute temperatures should be referred to using confusingly identical units (Kelvins), even though most functions of absolute temperature (such as black-body radiation rates) are non-linear. Before the IUPAC made the mistake of "standardizing" this terminology, degrees Kelvin (°K) and Kelvin degrees (K°) were used to distinguish these two concepts. Fortunately, (°C) and (C°) are still used… which leads to proof that Wikipedia is also unreliable.
    – Jasper
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 1:36
  • The issue you raise has nothing to do with grammar.
    – user6951
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 5:02

2 Answers 2


To answer the questions you're asking:

  • Yes, it would be grammatically incorrect by today's standards.
  • Why is it incorrect? Because the rules have changed.
  • Is there a rule that applies specifically to this technicality? I wasn't able to find one in my search through the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry literature, but there might indeed be one.

And to politely disagree with your final paragraph, a document might well be outdated because the grammar that existed at its creation has changed. For small changes such as the capitalization there commonly isn't much issue, but what if those capitalizations were applied to a capitalization-sensitive word such as calorie?

  • A calorie (lowercase c) is the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water by one Celsius degree at a pressure of one atmosphere.
  • A Calorie (capital C) is the amount of energy needed to raise one kilogram of water by one Celsius degree at a pressure of one atmosphere and is also referred to as a kilogram or nutritional calorie.

And just to drive the point home, let me give you an example using Middle English:

Fower treen hast bourne frut.

What does the sentence say? Are we talking about a type of tree called Fower and a whole lot of typos? Perhaps flowering tree of some type? Or are we saying that four trees have borne fruit?

  • Good point about the Calorie/calorie. Hmmm, I see "four trees have boundary (frut)". I'm not really sure that frut is ME though, it's a Latin word not Germanic. I couldn't find an ME reference for frut. But, I'm not sure what the point is to this trivia. You're conflating it's incorrect because of rule changes? Personally, I always think of a document in terms of when it was written. It was written properly then and is correct as opposed to it is not correct because the rule has changed. I would like to know if there is an absolute rule rather than guess at it.
    – David
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 7:36
  • I ran out of space and forgot to edit. Conflating incorrect with lost in translation?
    – David
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 7:45
  • @Jasper Your preferred order (one Celsius degree) is less common. One degree Celsius is the normal way to say it (though your version is not ungrammatical).
    – user230
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 4:55
  • @snailboat -- The different word orders have different meanings. "One Celsius degree" is a change in temperature; "four degrees Celsius" is a particular temperature.
    – Jasper
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 5:08
  • @Jasper That doesn't seem to be true, looking at corpus evidence. People tend to say temperature increases by one degree Celsius, not by one Celsius degree.
    – user230
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 5:31

If the grammarians of the world decided tomorrow that all versions of "to be" should be conjugated as "is," that wouldn't make documents written today or earlier incorrect. Instead they would be products of an earlier grammar. We see this very often when analyzing older documents, and it is understood that the rules of grammar have changed over time.

Here, where the IUPAC sets the rules for chemical nomenclature by committee, chemists usually refer to a "preferred usage" rather than declaring older versions to be ungrammatical. This is the case with terms like "iron(III) chloride" rather than "ferric chloride" and the like. The older terms are still used, they just aren't preferred any longer and are generally discouraged.

  • But more specifically, is there an actual technical term or procedure when dealing with such a document? (maybe some deep hidden latin/greek term even) It just seems that there is a word for everything sometimes.
    – David
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 2:25
  • I don't know that they are technical terms, but calling the old version "deprecated" (or "archaic" if it is very old) is common. Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 2:47
  • 1
    You wrote: 'If the grammarians of the world decided tomorrow that all versions of "to be" should be conjugated as "is," ...'. While your sentence is literally correct, the implication is that grammarians actually invent rules like this. In fact, grammar develops naturally, and grammarians can only come up with ways to describe it. If they did what you suggest, they would all be wrong, and people who followed their advice would no longer be speaking Standard English.
    – user230
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 9:46
  • @snailboat Indeed, that was my point. If there were a board of grammarians in the same way that there is an IUPAC, then... Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 12:40
  • Deprecate would imply that it is no longer valid in content. I may be looking for something that isn't there. I just wasn't sure if there was actual terminology/procedure/rule for this scenario.
    – David
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 13:39

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