Capital punishment: why using random capitals is a crime!

Capital punishment: why using random capitals is a crime!

capital lettersAgh – few things annoy my linguistic sensibilities more than random capitalisation. Sure, misplaced apostrophes are probably a greater grammatical blot on the language landscape, but the capitalisation of words is more irritating because of its intentional nature.

I’m currently editing and rewriting the copy on a massive IT website and still come across examples of nail-on-blackboard level irritation. Take the following example.

Faster, more Secure, more Stable than any other hosting available to Australian Small Business

What irritates me so much is the idea that capitalising the first letter of the key words provides additional emphasis or makes them seem more important. But capitalising the first letter denotes a proper noun and is therefore highly inappropriate. How is ‘Secure” a noun? Or “Stable”? They are adjectives, people! Adjectives do NOT capitalise the initial letter.

The intention is to add emphasis, obviously. But does it need any? If something is secure, is it made moreso by sticking a capital ‘S’ on the front?

The second mistake is the inital capitalisation of ‘Australian Small Business’. Sure, Australia needs one, but ‘small business’ certainly does not. Here, the mistake is more likely to do with over-eager formality, bestowing proper noun status where none is merited.

Generally, there are only a handful of times a capital letter should be used:

  • At the beginning of a sentence
  • At the beginning of speech contained within another sentence where it would normally be considered to be the start of a fresh sentence. (She said, “You’re not going to wear that shirt, are you?”)
  • When using the the nominative singular pronoun — ‘I’. Although this doesn’t apply to any other pronouns, such as he, me, it etc.
  • In the formation of acronyms and initialisms; such as NASA, where each letter indicates a word in the title
  • In rare circumstances, by capitalising an ENTIRE word for emphasis – although some still consider this a stylistic issue
  • In titles of books, movies etc; usually capitalising all but the prepositions and definite or indefinate articles, except where they also begin the title. (eg: An Officer and a Gentleman)
  • In certain script writing formats to denote special effects, actions or particular headings
  • With proper nouns

There are a few other minor variations in rare circumstances (such as the capitalisation of P in ‘iPod’ reflecting a modern titling convention that is rapidly dying out) but it is probably safer to avoid muddying the water with unusual exceptions to the rules that most people will never have a reason to use.

But what is a proper noun and where, therefore, should the capital be used? I know this sounds like a return to school, but it absolutely amazes me how many people have a poor grasp of these basic concepts and continue to randomly capitalise words in virtually every sentence.

A proper noun is a word describing a singular thing. There may be many cities, but only one London. (Sure, there’s another London in the US, but you know what I mean!) There are billions of people, but Jonathan Crossfield is a tag used to describe only one of them. (Again, there’s more than one about the place if you search Google, but none of them have blogs as good as this one, right?) Similarly, there are many small businesses, but when you name a specific business, you narrow the criteria to one.

But it isn’t as simple as saying a proper noun refers to an individual thing, because I could then argue for capitalisation when I refer to ‘my cat’ – it is a specific cat after all. Allocating a name or title is important in this distinction. Therefore, ‘The President of the United States’ or ‘President Obama’ has capitalisation as they are specific titles related to one individual, and are therefore proper nouns. But ‘president’ by itself without a surname or other specific information is only a common noun.

But you probably already know all this, right? I may be preaching to the choir – I hope I am – but I needed to rant. If we don’t stand up and shout “This is wrong!”, the capital letter will continue to have its weight and power diluted through incorrect overuse. If we don’t stamp out this blight when inflicted upon us, the meaning of sentences can become jumbled in confusion.

Lastly, a quick question. Do you capitalise the word ‘Internet’? Many do, arguing that there is only one Internet, just as there is only one Moscow. But is the internet (see, I don’t choose to capitalise it) a singular thing or a commodity or gestalt entity? Would you capitalise ‘blogosphere’, made up of all the individual blogs, or ‘humanity’ made up of all of us? I wouldn’t. Capitalising internet, to me, seems as daft as capitalising the atmosphere or electricity. Whatever the correct answer though, usage has shown that the capitalisation of ‘internet’ is falling away rapidly and will most likely be very rare in the future.

What linguistic crimes do you feel are worthy of capital punishment? (Snigger – see what I did there?)

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