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The English of Physics

  1. Apr 29, 2007 #1
    While writing about some topics in science I came across the strange use of capitalization with certain words related to physics. (e.g. "newtonian" and "galilean" )

    I notice many people capitalize "newtonian" wherever it is used. (Most spell-checkers will even mark the lower case version as incorrect.) Why such a word is always capitalized doesn't make sense.

    When used in the word "Newtonian Revolution", the capitalization makes sense because the word is a name. However, when a fellow scientist recommends to "take a newtonian approach to the problem", the word is being used as an adjective, not a name and does not need to be capitalized. (i.e. describing the type of approach) Would you capitalize "quantum" or "relativistic" when used in such a case?

    I do not know why such habits of grammar are followed as the only reason I find to do so is that "everyone else does it"... unless a good reason is found to do otherwise.

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 29, 2007 #2
    Actually, I'd probably capitalize Newtonian when asking someone to take the Newtonian approach (see? I just did it). I think that you capitalize a word whenever it's based on someone's name. Keynesian Economics and Marxism are a couple words that come to mind.
  4. Apr 29, 2007 #3
    I suppose capitalization of words founded on names is a good argument. So, units of "gauss" or "coulombs" should always be capitalized? (Or is there a different set of rules for units of measure? I'd rather have a unified theory...)
  5. Apr 29, 2007 #4

    Chi Meson

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    That is the ONLY reason for linguistic rules. Why are all nouns in German capitalized? Because that is the way Germans write. Why is Hebrew and Arabic writing right-to-left? Because that's the way it is written.

    In science, the symbols for units that are named after scientists (the newton, the coulomb, the ampere etc) are capitalized (N, C, A) while word itself is not when written out. Why? Because that's the way it's done.
  6. Apr 29, 2007 #5

    George Jones

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    Newton and Newtonian are both capitalized; the first is a proper noun, and the second is a proper adjective. This is not my opinion, it is stated, for example, in my copy of The Brief English Handbook, which gives Freudian as an example of a proper adjective. It seems unlikely that this example comes from physics.

    Google "proper adjective".
  7. Apr 30, 2007 #6


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    Indeed, a proper adjective must be capitalised.
  8. May 10, 2007 #7
    "Quantum Mechanics" || "Quantum Physics"

    (Thanks to George Jones for clarifying the rules of proper adjectives.)

    Use "quantum mechanics" or "quantum physics" ?

    I have noticed that many physicists will use "quantum mechanics" almost interchangeably with "quantum physics". It seems that "quantum mechanics" is the proper term ( referring to Wikipedia ), but there seems to be implied difference regarding meaning. Is "quantum physics" used as a general concept and "quantum mechanics" refers to the equations and methods used? And, when should one use or not use one form versus the other?

  9. May 10, 2007 #8

    George Jones

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    I'm not sure that there are accepted answers to these questions, but see https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=90002".
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 22, 2017
  10. May 10, 2007 #9


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    There are millions of dynamic theorem-provers walking around generating strings that are similar enough to be grouped together as a language called "English". (In fact, I imagine there are many ways to set things up so that there are infinitely-many theories of English.1)

    While sticking to conventions is often beneficial in communication systems like natural language, I encourage you, my fellow English-speaker, to give your brain more credit than you give your spell-checker, dictionary, or anything else that is not an English speaker. If you one day want a string that is shorter but equivalent in meaning to "someone who advocates or regularly takes a Newtonian approach", your spell-checker is probably not smrt enough to recognized that "Newtonianist" will be acceptable to most English speakers. (My browser's spell-checker is not that smart.) And you might prefer the capitalized version to the uncapitalized version until you write "unNewtonianistic", especially if you don't like using a hyphen with "un-". If something makes more sense to you, I hope you will try to get away with using it. Think of the children! Won't somebody, please, think of teh children!!!1 (Also, think of the poor linguists who are studying and trying to make sense of you.)

    Also, I would argue that you guys are not even talking about the same word. I know several words that all share the surface form "newtonian", some of which are proper nouns and some of which are not.

    Also, to those who prefer a rule that requires a speaker to know the history of a word (e.g., that it was originally derived from a proper noun), I wonder how you justify the cost of carrying around that extra information when it does cost more (e.g., if lowercase is the rule and uppercase an exception).

    1. An easy example might be the N theories with the additional rule that inserts a short pause (glottal stop), as in the middle of "uh-oh", after the nth syllable in a word. Such speech would probably be odd but certainly intelligible. And in practice, infinitely many of those wouldn't even be distinguishable (until speakers start living forever).
    Last edited: May 10, 2007
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