Monday, December 5, 2022

Celebrating the Coming Release of "The Frugal Editor" with an Essay on the Conceited Pronoun "I"

A Little Essay on the Pronoun “I”
Using "I" As a Conceit

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of fiction,
poetry, and how-too books for writers.

I don't know when I learned the word "conceited." I was raised in Utah (yes, that’s part of the United States of America!) where most of us didn't use "conceit" in the sense of an elaborate or strained metaphor but rather to mean that someone thought they were extra-super special. The little girl across the street who snubbed me because I didn't wear long stockings with garters (which was an immediate tipoff that I was not her kind) was "conceited" rather than prejudiced. The kid who was quick to make a point of how bright he was when I made a mistake was "conceited" rather than arrogant (or insecure). Gawd! I loved the word "conceited." I could apply it to so many situations and avoid learning new vocabulary words.

Of course, in a culture where being extra-super humble was valued, I soon noticed that our English language is, indeed, "conceited."

I'm speaking of the way we capitalize the pronoun "I." None of the other pronouns are capped. So what about this "I," standing tall no matter where you find it alone in a sentence?

Recently as I tutored students in accent reduction and American culture, I noticed that some languages (like Japanese) seem to do quite well without pronouns of any sort. I remembered back (a long way back!) to a linguistics class in college and did a little extra research.  Some languages like Hebrew and Arabic, don't capitalize any of their letters and some, like German, capitalize every darn noun. So, English—a Germanic language at its roots—just carried on the German proclivity for caps.

But the question remained. Why only the "I?" Why not "them" and "you" and all the others. Caroline Winter, a 2008 Fulbright scholar, says "England was where the capital "I" first reared its dotless head… .Apparently someone back then decided that after it had been diminished from the original Gemanic ich,  the little lowercase
“i" was not substantial enough to stand alone." Some say it had to do with an artistic approach to fonts. The story goes that long ago in the days of handset type or even teletype machines little sticks and dots standing all alone looked like broken bits of lead or scrappy orphan letters.

Then there is the idea that religion played a part in capitalizing the "I." Rastafarians (and some others, too) think in terms of humankind as being one with God and therefore—one has to presume—it would be rather blasphemous not to capitalize "I" just as one does "God." Capitals, after all, are a way to honor a word or concept.

Which, of course, brings us back to the idea that we speakers of English are just plain "conceited."

More About the Guest Blogger

Carolyn Howard-Johnson was an instructor for UCLA Extension's world-renown Writers' Program for nearly a decade and is author of the multi award-winning HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers including The Frugal Editor, soon to be released by Modern History Press in its third edition, updated to accommodate new editing expectations around gender and lots more. Modern History Press President, Victor Vollkman, says it has more than 50% new material as evidenced by the Index he just finished installing.  Carolyn is the recipient of the California Legislature's Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award and was honored by Pasadena Weekly for her literary activism. She also is a popular speaker and commericial actor with the likes of Blue Shield, Disney (Japan) Cruiselines, and Apple Computer to her credit. Her website is
Book Cover for New 3rd Edition by Doug West


Linda Wilson said...

What a fun post! I never thought about I being capitalized. I will from now on!!!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I know! We're just so conceited! Ahem!


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