This comes up on discussion lists—as well as in my own work—from time to time, and I’m beginning to have an inkling as to the reasons authors do this. Here are the three reasons I’ve come up with so far. If you recognize yourself here, you know what to do. If you can think of other reasons, by all means please submit a comment.
- The German influence In German, all nouns are capitalized. Authors writing in English who studied German or who grew up in German-speaking families sometimes allow the noun-capitalizing habit to slide over into English. Usually, they apply the principle sporadically, but all of the erroneously capitalized words are in fact nouns. That’s the clue.
- The abbreviation factor A common style for introducing an abbreviation into a document is to write out the full phrase and then enclose the abbreviation in parentheses. For example, a medical paper might refer to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The unobservant reader recalls that MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging but does not notice that magnetic resonance imaging is not capitalized. When that same reader turns around and writes a document, suddenly the name of the technology is expressed as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), because if MRI is capped, surely the words it stands for must be capped too, right? And the editor gets to play Whack-A-Cap again.
- The head fake A similar situation arises when a phrase is seen repeatedly in titles and headings. In many styles, article titles and subheadings are downstyled, meaning they are written in sentence case. In others, they are upstyled, meaning they are written in title case. But in nearly all styles, table column headings are written in title case. So if a table of feed ingredients has column headings that read—to take a recent example—Wheat, Corn, Soybeans, Barley,and Dried Distiller Grains, an author might take that to mean that those words should be capped in any discussion of feed ingredients. Um, no, they shouldn’t. But that’s okay. Your friendly, local editor will take care of the problem.