CAPITAL LETTERS IN ENGLISH

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•  Sentence-initial capitals

The most prominent capital letters rule in printed English is that a sentence starts with a capital letter and finishes with a full stop.

          It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (Dickens 1859)

This definition of a sentence as bookended by a capital letter and a final punctuation mark < . ! ? > means anything bounded by a capital letter and a final full stop counts, whether full sentences (i.e. with main verbs), verbless phrases or single words. This kind of definition is not, however, a great help to children learning to top and tail English sentences as it presupposes the knowledge of writing they have yet to acquire. Historically sentence initial capitals seem to derive from the decorated initial letters signalling the start of units in mediaeval manuscripts.

•  Line-initial capitals

English verse is conventionally printed with word-initial capitals starting each metrical line:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table (T.S. Eliot 1915)

•  Word-initial capitals

Initial capital letters are used in the print system to signal certain word classes, such as proper names like James Brown and place-names like New York, and also for a motley list of words such as: days of the week, Monday; months, January; first person I (other languages instead often capitalise the second person plural you, as in Sie, Lei, Usted, etc); and nationalities, German, Chilean. The print system guides for newspapers provide more detailed advice, for example ‘President Donald Trump (but the US president, Donald Trump …)’.

The print system restricts word-initial capitals to content words in book titles like The Taming of the Shrew, called ‘headline style’ or ‘title case’. This harks back to the seventeenth century English style of capitalising content words in certain styles of writing, still current in German:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, ...
Sing Heav'nly Muse, ... (J. Milton, 1667)

•  All capitals

The most obvious use of phrases in all capital letters is on title pages of books:

EQUALITY, FREEDOM & RELIGION

Headings in some texts have all capitals:

      EARLY FASCISM AND PUBLIC SPACES

And headlines in print editions of tabloid newspapers:

1 IN SEVEN ENGLISH PUPILS SPEAK TWO LANGUAGES (Daily Mail)

The use of all-capitals in texts for 'shouting' goes back at least to Thackeray:

"YOU DIDN'T GO IN, Rawdon!" screamed his wife. (W.M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair, 1847)

It became a heated issue of netiquette and academic writing, for example:

 Don’t use CAPITALS BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE SHOUTING. (University of York Writing Guidelines 2016).

A corollary to this overall perception of capitals as shouting is the use of lowercase as the name for a genre of quiet music. The speech bubbles in strip cartoons are often all capitals, as in Anime Ace, a popular contemporary handwriting-based typeface:

In the print system, whole words in capitals are found in:

- acronyms, BREXIT;

- initialisms, B&B, COPD, and initials, T.S. Eliot, J.K. Rowling;

- character names in plays, Enter SURFACE;

- some newspaper headlines, heatwave to last a month.

- to show the speech of unusual characters in novels, such as the computer cab Columbus in Noon’s Pollen:

     GLAD TO HAVE YOU ON-LINE, DRIVER.

or Death in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels:

A HUNDRED YEARS CAN PASS LIKE A DAY.

All-capitals are also required for much form-filling:

PLEASE COMPLETE ALL SECTIONS IN BLOCK CAPITALS

The meaning of block is obscure; the OED defines it as ‘a capital letter written or printed without serifs’. It, however, seems rather unlikely that ‘non-expert’ writers would use such serifs in their handwritten answers if they did not have instructions to use block capitals. It appears not to be a matter of machine readability as the Royal Mail guidelines do not mention it, though ABBYY recommend ‘For best recognition results, forms should be completed in block capital letters’.

•  Mixed capitals and lower case within the same word

The print system uses capitals within a word in Irish- and Scottish-derived surnames, which may have a capital after Mac-, MacWhinney, or may not, Macgregor. A few other surnames have word-medial capitals: VanDyke, BleyVroman and DeFrancis. Essentially owners of surnames can dictate their spelling, as in the wellknown Psmith with a silent < p > in P.G. Wodehouse. Internal capitals are used in modern company names, usually reflecting morpheme-splits within words (often merged names), as in StarkHartleyAtkinson. An experimental system to minimise mistakes in dispensing medications found that printing the second part of the name in capitals led to fewer errors (Filika et al 2004); Binet’s 2012 novel is titled HHhH.

•  All lower case letters

The choice of all lower case letters can be a deliberate stylistic rebellion against the print system. Celebrated examples are the poems of E.E. Cummings, who mostly avoided line initial capitals and replaced the pronoun < I > with lower case < i >. While his publishers gave his name as e.e. cummings, he nevertheless signed himself EEC.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; … (E.E. Cummings 1952)

The lack of capital letters became a mark of the avantgarde poet, as with Archie:

i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach (Marquis 1927)

though in this case caused by a cockroach’s inability to use the shift key on a typewriter.


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