Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Capital Idea

Editors can obsess at length about what should be capitalized and what should not, but one thing we all agree on is that Non-Writers Tend to Capitalize Far Too Many Words for No Apparent Reason.

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
In the grand scheme of things, excess capitalization of words is not a problem on the scale of undercapitalization of banks. But it’s also an easier problem to fix.


Benjamin Lukoff said...

I've been noticing this more and more lately. I don't know if it's the German influence, though. The abbreviation factor and the head fake make more sense to me. But to be honest, I think it's related to the German phenomenon in that in English, as well, nouns used to be capitalized. And they still are, occasionally, for effect (e.g., "they thought it was a Very Bad Thing). Nouns are also often capitalized in legalese (e.g., I'm right now looking at a sentence that ends "...on behalf of the Beneficial Owner").

Perhaps it also has to do with what sort of writing non-writers tend to read. Fewer books and long-form magazine articles, more headlines and advertising and TV, where caps abound. I think that might be the most plausible cause, come to think of it.

Here's an interesting question: are there similar phenomena in non-English languages? Would make an interesting followup.

Dick Margulis said...

I think the use in legalese is vestigial German. Remember that English is a Germanic language, and we followed German capitalization style in earlier centuries. Given the strong attachment many lawyers feel toward older forms (much of our law goes back to Feudalism, after all), it's not surprising that lawyers hold onto their caps.

Andy said...

Don't forget the Winnie the Pooh influence: "... a hum came suddenly into his head, which seemed to him a Good Hum, such as is Hummed Hopefully to Others."

Orange said...

Many people also think if one part of a phrase is capitalized, it all should be. Consider "Alzheimer's Disease," "Down Syndrome." People! Alzheimer and Down are eponyms but "disease" and "syndrome" are just plain ol' common nouns.

Clare Lynch said...

I think part of the problem is that (in the UK at least) pupils are no longer taught English grammar - and therefore the difference between a proper noun and a common noun. (Or even what a noun is - I once taught a smart language graduate from a very good UK university, who confessed that she didn't know what I meant when I used the word "noun", until she remembered that it was any word that began with "der, die or das" in German.)

To me, over-capitalisation betrays a sense of insecurity about the difference between common and proper nouns. My theory is that people capitalise to be on the safe side (much as in the past people used the polite plural whenever there was any doubt about their relationship to the person they were addressing, leading to the loss of "thou" from our language). Just a theory - what do you think?

Have you noticed, too, that in corpspeak it's always the Very Important Words that are capitalised: Diversity, Strategy, Efficiency etc.

Nancy Friedman said...

I agree with Clare: My corporate clients believe that capitalizing a title ("Jane Doe has served as Senior Executive Vice President and as Director of Marketing Research") makes it More Important.

Likewise, they like to see Company capitalized everywhere. And please, sir, may we have a lot of (tm) symbols?

I wrote about Shift-Key-Infatuation Syndrome a few years ago:

Sherry Noik said...

Great post, Dick.

I would add the Declaration of Independence influence: "We hold these Truths...that all Men are created...unalienable Rights..."

The rule seems to be: Capitalize Very Important Words.

I recently had an infuriating discussion with an otherwise very bright guy who works in finance. He told me his company capitalizes the word "Bank" - "out of respect," he says.

I think another influence comes from advertising (as Benjamin pointed out), where mottos and constructions that resemble complete sentences are all capped, a la "Just Do It." (Period inside comma mine. :)

Clare Lynch said...

Nancy - and when it's not the "Company" they're talking about, it's the "Firm", which always sounds vaguely sinister and Mafia-like to me.

Sherry Noik said...

Nancy and Clare, don't forget:
"Grand Opening"
"Weekends and Holidays"
And my personal fave, "Spring" (or "Fall")

Sherry Noik said...

Oops! That should have been (Period inside quotes mine. :) on first comment. Happy Monday!