English As She Is Writ - part seventeen

Capital offences - the uses and abuses of letters from the upper case

First of all: what are capital, or upper-case, letters? It’s a subject that loiters somewhere between punctuation and grammar. Here’s the brief explanation.

Each letter in the English alphabet has two forms, properly known as majuscule and minuscule – big and small. Often the majuscule form is simply the minuscule form but bigger: for instance the letter c, whose big form is C. Other letters differ: for instance minuscule g, majuscule G.

It is more usual to refer to the two different forms as lower case and upper case. These terms derive from the many centuries when typesetting was done by hand. A typesetter would keep the little metal blocks for minuscule letters in a case resting almost horizontally on the work surface in front of him; the majuscule letter blocks were in a case placed above it. Hence upper and lower case letters.

Upper-case letters are commonly referred to as capital letters, but strictly speaking an upper-case letter is a capital letter only when used at the start of a word or sentence. I have to admit, though, that accounts for almost all upper-case usage in written English.

Having defined the various terms, I will quickly describe the situations in which, by convention, one uses an upper-case letter when writing in English. (This inevitably will not be comprehensive.)  You will note that I carefully used the expression ‘by convention’; as with spelling and punctuation there are no rules, but there are conventions that it is advisable to follow in formal writing and that one might as well follow all the time unless striving for an unusual effect.

The first letter of a sentence is capitalised by using the upper-case form. You can see that every sentence in this article starts with an upper-case letter. Why is this? No reason at all that I can discern, except that it’s really useful: it highlights the fact that a new sentence is starting. I have said in previous parts of this blog that punctuation is, in large part, a matter of a writer being polite to his or her readers, and the capitalisation of a sentence’s first letter is exactly the same: it’s helpful.

A couple of centuries ago it was usual in written English to capitalise every noun, like this: a Couple of Centuries ago it was usual to capitalise every Noun. Written German still does this, but English now capitalises only what are known as proper nouns: names, essentially, along with their associated titles, honorifics or specific descriptions. I’ll provide examples.

We’ll invent a chap named Alfred Peasoup. As is conventional, both his first and second names are capitalised. He is a professor, so we would write his name as Professor Alfred Peasoup. If he were to be knighted for his researches (into tea strainers, for instance) he would become Professor Sir Alfred Peasoup (or perhaps Professor Alfred Peasoup, Knight). However there is no reason to use upper-case letters in a sentence such as ‘Alfred Pearson is both a professor and a knight’.

The aircraft carrier Ark Royal has its name capitalised (and we write the name in italics – as explained in part thirteen of this blog). Its full name is, of course, His Majesty’s Ship Ark Royal – and as you can see we capitalise the honorific description attached to the name. The capitals remain when the description is abbreviated: HMS Ark Royal. Here’s the World War 2 version:

Sometimes an abbreviation of a name that consists of several words becomes an acronym – a name in its own right. The system called Radio Detecting And Ranging was almost immediately abbreviated to RADAR, and once in common use it became a word – radar – and because it has now lost its association with its origins it has also lost all of its capital letters. The same process has produced the word laser. Acronyms more recently created tend to keep capitalisation of their initial letter – for instance Covid, the acronym from ‘Coronovirus disease’. There is no rule about this: I’ve seen the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation written as NATO and Nato (but never nato). In general: if the words in the original name are proper nouns, the acronym is likely to retain an initial capital letter; and the more recently formed the acronym, the more likely it is to retain upper case for at least its initial letter.

It is conventional to use a capital i when referring to oneself: I certainly do.

It is also conventional to capitalise the first letter of the word God and its equivalents in non-Christian religions: Allah and Jehovah, for instance. You will also find that descriptive words and phrases in relation to deities are also often capitalised: Our Saviour, the Redeemer, the Prophet, and so on. As an atheist I find this slightly troubling: it feels strange to award a capital letter to a being I’m pretty confident doesn’t exist. I’m happier with capitals for Zeus, Hera, Thor, Krishna, Jesus and suchlike, as these are simply names that don’t carry any inherent implication of divinity.

You will find entire sentences printed in all-capitals in newspaper headlines and notices; the intention is to attract attention (and it is therefore not surprising that if you write in all-capitals in an e-mail, text message or forum post you will be deemed to be shouting).

Increasingly newspapers, other media and even official notices are restricting capitals to the first letter of each word, or to just the first letter of the first word.

The usual way to write a title (of a book, film or play, for instance) is to capitalise the initial letter of each big word, but to leave the little words all in lower case, like this:

I have a slight preference for capitalising the initial letter of all the words in a title – even the littlest ones – but it is a matter of personal preference and of the house style of the publisher.

On a poster or book cover, as with a headline or a notice, one way to grab attention is to write the entire title in upper-case letters, like this:

All of the above guidance about capitalisation in headlines, notices, posters and book covers can be thrown out of the window, however, when it’s a matter of writing about the same items within ordinary text. Examples follow.

  • A web site of ludicrous newspaper headlines includes this gem: ‘Man fries eggs on his bald head!’ (Within inverted commas because the headline is a quotation from elsewhere; no capitalisation other than at the start of the sentence because – well, because it’s just a sentence.)
  • I intend to write a review of the literary masterpiece entitled Where The Hell Is My Underwear? (Initial capital of each word is retained because this is a title; and it’s rendered in italics for the same reason. The terminal question mark is italicised because it’s part of the book title; if it were not in italics it would indicate that the entire sentence is a question.)

What else is there to say about upper-case letters in English?

  • It’s worth noting that in mathematical notation it matters whether a letter is minuscule or majuscule: x and X have different meanings.
  • You can drive yourself crazy trying to decide whether, in a book title, say, the initial letter of the second word in a hyphenated word should be capitalised. A Beginner’s Guide to Start-Up Finance, or A Beginner’s Guide to Start-up Finance? There is not so much as a hint of a convention; it’s down to writer’s preference and publisher’s house style.
  • Don’t forget that words such as Hoover, Biro and Tannoy are brand names, and so the first letter should be upper case.

Having dealt with the conventions of using upper-case letters, I will now vent a little spleen in the direction of organisations and businesses that insist that their names, rendered all in lower-case letters as a trademark, must have no initial capital letter when written in ordinary text.

There are many, many organisations and businesses that advertise themselves without any capitals. Here are a few.

I think these names look a bit odd without initial capitals, but they are, after all, only logos – artistic renderings of the businesses’ names. Apparently businesses choose logos with lower-case letters because they are thought to be more friendly and less ‘shouty’ than capitals.

I can live with lower-case logos. What gets on my wick, though, is the fact that some businesses fail to capitalise the initial letter of their names in normal text. We don’t have to concern ourselves with Twitter, as it has become X, but when it was Twitter its logo was all in lower-case letters but it referred to itself in normal text as Twitter, capitalised. Other businesses, unfortunately, are less aware of the conventions of written English.

I have found reference to a retail consultancy – possibly no longer in business, as it seems to have no current web presence – that decided to call itself him!. Yes, just one short word, no initial capital, and a bizarre and unnecessary exclamation mark. him! insisted that its name should always be reproduced, in all contexts, as all lower-case letters and with the silly exclamation mark. During this consultancy’s existence editors must have dreaded having to refer to it. ‘Women prefer paler colours but stronger patterns, according to him!’ Incomprehensible; who is ‘him’?

The conventions of written English exist for a number of reasons, one of the most important being to make written text more comprehensible. Names – proper nouns – are capitalised so that the reader knows that what is being referred to is a distinct, named person or thing, rather than a general category. The two sentences below have different meanings.

  • London’s green belt should be preserved, according to conservatives.
  • London’s Green Belt should be preserved, according to Conservatives.

The first sentence provides information about the opinions, of people who have a conservative attitude, about open countryside around London; the second, in a UK context, sets out a policy espoused by the Conservative Party in relation to those areas designated by law as comprising the protected countryside known as the Green Belt.

My advice, therefore, is always to capitalise the first letter of a name, regardless of whether the name’s owner prefers the first letter to be lower case.

That’s all I have to say on the subject of capital letters. I don’t know yet what field of written English my helicopter mind will descend into next, but be assured a landing will be made somewhere.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.