Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Word Nerd Post: Why I’m No Longer Capitalizing “Taekwon-Do”


What does taekwon-do have to do with writing, you ask? Well, not much overall. But there is something that all of of have been doing wrong.

First, let me give you a little background.

A large part of my day job involves writing. And I’ve always concerned myself with the rules of writing—things like grammar and punctuation—but writing for a living has made me pay even closer attention. Over the past few years, I’ve realized something about capitalization in particular: while most people understand that there are guidelines for capitalization, few of us follow them consistently. It turns out that people love to capitalize things that shouldn’t be capitalized.

I’m not sure why this happens. I suspect it’s because people unconsciously want to make things sound important by writing them with capital letters. They capitalize things like job titles, procedures and activities. But these things should often be written in lowercase.

The simplified version of the guideline is that capitals are used for official titles of specific people, places or things. They are not used to refer to titles in general. What do I mean by that? Let’s use an example. I could write “I spoke with President Obama”, since I’m referring to a specific person. But if I didn’t use his name, I would write “I spoke with the president”.

Still not sure how this relates to taekwon-do? Well, you’ve probably already noticed that I’ve written the word “taekwon-do” throughout this article without using capital letters (except for the title, that is). You see, even though taekwon-do is the name of our martial art, it isn’t the title of a specific thing. The International Taekwon-Do Federation is the title of an organization, so it should be capitalized. But taekwon-do is the name of an activity. It should be in lowercase.

Take a look at any journalistic style guide, such as the one from the Associated Press. They don’t capitalize the names of sports. We don’t write phrases like “I play Football” or “I really love Wrestling”. Taekwon-do is no different.

“But,” you say, “taekwon-do isn’t just a sport.” You’re right, but it’s still an activity. The fact that it’s a martial art doesn’t somehow put it above other activities. Writing “I like to go Hiking on Sundays” would be ridiculous (although I’m sure somewhere out there, someone has written that sentence exactly that way). Even though hiking is not a specific system of techniques, it is the name for that activity. And do you know some things that are specific systems of techniques? Sports!

While we’re at it, here are some other words that shouldn’t be capitalized: “sir”, “ma’am”, “black belt” and “martial arts”.

I’m sure General Choi genuinely believed that the name he created was meant to be capitalized. It is a title after all. But, like most people, he tried to use capitalization to place importance on something that doesn’t need to be capitalized.

So from now on you’ll see the word “taekwon-do” written in lowercase in all new articles on Dobok Squawk. You can continue to capitalize it if you want. That’s your choice. But I’m going with the convention of writing, not the convention of taekwon-do.