The new rules of CaPiTaLiZaTiOn

The rules for capitalizing letters are totally arbitrary. So I wrote new rules.

I'm declaring a Free-For-All on capitalization. Capitalize However You Want, as long as you can give a Good Reason for it.

Don't shoot the messenger. It's just what we're already doing. The rules for capitalization in English have always been shaky and inconsistent, there is no rule that doesn't have some exceptions, and we've been going nuts with it for decades. We might as well admit it and claim the full potential of having two versions of each letter, one normal and one BIG.

Capitals are the neckties of the typographic world. Just as neckties are now a purely ostentatious and stylized development of something that was originally functional (to keep your collar closed before buttons were used for the purpose), capitals are a formal retention of the original letter shapes. The Latin alphabet was originally CAPITALS ONLY, AS YOU WILL SEE FROM MANY INSCRIPTIONS. In the medieval period, scribes developed flowing ways of writing the letters, and these became our modern "small" or "lower-case" letters. They also gave more shape variation, making reading easier. The original forms were retained for the most important letters and for ornamental capitals. And then when printing presses and moveable type came along, they had two cases of type, the upper one with the big letters and the lower one with the small ones. And so we developed habits and made some Rules.

But capitalization is not an essential feature in most contexts. Many forms and documents render names in ALL CAPS, and some would-be tax evaders have argued that a tax form naming JOHN SMITH doesn't apply to John Smith, but the courts have informed them that oH yES iT dOES. And if you make a check out to lakeisha de haas, it can be cashed by LaKeisha de Haas. In other news, a person wearing a necktie is the same person as when they're not wearing it.

Many alphabets don't even have a capital–lowercase distinction. Since we have this decorative resource, we shouldn't waste it. Let's look at the world of possibilities opened up by exploiting the full potential of capital letters.


Old fashioned: Capitalize the first letter of every word except articles, conjunctions, and prepositions (or anyway short prepositions): How to Make a Million Dollars Through Writing about Language.

Current: Capitalize the first letter of every word, because Microsoft Word does it that way, or just capitalize the very first word, because Europeans do it that way and what the heck: How To Make A Million Dollars Through Writing About Language or How to make a million dollars through writing about language.

Full potential: Use it to emphasize words or convey subtext: How to make a Million Dollars through writing about Language or HOW TO MAKE a millioN dOllars THrough writING about language.


Old fashioned: Capitalize the first word of each sentence. Even sentence fragments. If it comes after a colon, you have a choice: Capitalize it or don't …The same goes for ellipses — but not for dashes, commas, semicolons, etc.

Current: If the first word in your sentence is a name that is pointedly lowercase, you have to decide whether to capitalize it. danah boyd probably won't like it if you put her at the start of a sentence as Danah. eBay presents a similar conundrum.

Full potential: It's easier to see where a sentence starts when there's a capital letter ‡ still, you could always use some larger, more obvious symbol in place of periods ‡ you could also end a sentence with a capitaL. the visual distinction would be about the samE. it would look self-conscious, but capital letters ARE self-consciouS.


Old fashioned: For people: Ernest Hemingway, John F. Kennedy, Ellen DeGeneres, Paul McCartney, d'Artagnan. For places: New York City, but SoHo. For businesses: British Airways, IBM, but MasterCard. For products: Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, but AstroTurf.

Current: To the above, add the following options: For people:, bpNichol, e e cummings, DeAndre Jordan. For businesses: OkCupid, eBay, JCPenney. For products: iPad, PrEP, HoTMaiL. Also, capitalization is sometimes used on medication packaging to make important distinctions clear, as between DAUNOrubicin and DOXOrubicin.

Full potential: For people: Ophelia clarK, MArKEy MahONEY, mIchael saInt pIerre, paTRIciaNiA (TRINA for short). For places: OKlahoma, WashIngtoN, TorontO, AdirondAck mountAins. For businesses and products: to be honest, they're pretty much doing it all already. Just remember that for legal purposes, this is all just ornamentation — except in specific trademark cases.


Old fashioned: Normally, capitalize all and include only words you would have capitalized in title case — so NAACP for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. There are some exceptions, such as PhD for Philosophiæ Doctor and plc for public limited company.

Current: Little words are also being added in, often in lowercase, as in MoMA for Museum of Modern Art and — language fussbudgets take note — CMoS or CMOS for the Chicago Manual of Style. Also, especially in things such as names of clinical trials, letters are sometimes dragged in from farther in the word: the VICTORY study stands for elective and acute stenting of coronary arteries on Express™ [coronary stent] system (the full name of which they clearly should write as electiVe and acute stentIng of Coronary arTeries On expRess™ [coronary stent] sYstem).

Full potential: You can't go much further than VICTORY, other than selectively capitalizing in the acronym itself, like BesT for harBeck insTitute. And some people do that already.

Important words

Old fashioned: There was a time a couple of centuries ago when any Noun that seemed important got Capitals. Some People wanted to capitalize all Nouns, which is what German does, but we went against that. More recently, A.A. Milne, who wrote the Pooh books, got into the habit of making things seem more unique or official by capitalizing them, e.g., a Bear of Very Little Brain. Others have taken to this as well.

Current: Anyone in the world of Business or Marketing knows that many people like to capitalize anything that's an Important Thing, such as a Product, Department, or Idea. This gets intrusive but it's Not Going Away.

Full potential: You could Just as Well capitalize for Intonation, really. If you don't want to SHOUT words but you want to make it clear which one is The word, capitals are there. You can also punch the enD. And you can convey an Attitude towards something or someone by changing the capitalization: "Well, that's what jennifeR browN told me."


Old fashioned:

Capitalize the word

That starts each line

And each sentence, of course,

And then you'll be fine.


it's poetry so

you don't have to capitalize

anything. But

you can

Full potential:


yOu couLd

thInk Up's

beeN Done

beForE by

sOme poEt




Current: For a few decades now, computers have had upper and lowercase, interchangeable in some contexts but not in others; passwords are case sensitive, some programming languages use selective capitalization, and it's common to put caps in the middle of concatenated strings of words ToMakeThemMoreReadable.

Full potential: Computer geeks are way ahead of the rest of us on this already. Where capitals and lowercase are treated the same, they use them however they want; where they are treated differently, they use them to make differences.

Social media

Old fashioned: Use formal writing standards in your electronic communications, there's a good chap.

Current: you can use all lowercase and minimal punctuation to convey informality or haste. YOU CAN USE ALL CAPS TO SCREAM. You can even mIx In cAps to be pLaYfUl (or JuVeNiLe), make wordplays (e.g., ShoEboX), or mock: "Sure, cApiTalIzAtiOn iS sImpLe." Since bolding and italics are difficult or impossible on many apps, caps are your easiest tool.

Full potential: Whatever you can think of, someone's going to try sooner or later, and some of it will catch on. And what starts on social media can spread elsewhere. Why not use BedposT CasE to make something even more regal? "OMG I got to see CatE BlanchetT!" Emphasize the end of a word: "why did you do thaT? you're so stupiD sometimeS." Indicate an emphasized vowel or syllable: "oh, that was fIne." "no it was nOt." Be contrary: "oH yES iT dOES."

Do you jusT hAte This? Does it seem iNAne to you? Well, yeah, a lot of attempts at fashion fall flat. Reading something with too many capitals also gets to be like listening to someone who swears every second word. But you can use them interestingly and effectively without overusing them. It's like any fashion choice: Keep an eye on what other people are doing and innovate thoughtfully.

And none of this keeps anyone from establishing and adhering to a House Style for use of capitals. In fact, that's what we already do — and different house styles capitalize differently. Even BuzzFeed's vaunted style guide doesn't put up with much when it comes to capitalizing the first letters of names at the starts of sentences. Freedom of choice means freedom to choose old-fashioned too. No one's forcing you to wear your necktie around your arm.


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