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There’s a clever joke making the rounds at e2. There are variations, but it goes something like this:

    --“knock knock”
    --“Go fuck yourself, e.e. cummings. We don’t answer the door for anyone who hasn’t learned to punctuate.”

The gag is usually delivered as a softlink appended to the offending write-up. My favourite is the classic, “there’s a spider in my keyboard.” But the list is surprisingly long. In addition to that old standby, “e.e. cummings”, you can find the courteous-yet-direct, “Capitalize, please”, and the ironic, “capital letters” (written in lowercase).

If the author eschews other aspects of standard English, he (or more likely ‘she’--as such galling informality is an affectation apparently adopted most commonly by teenage girls) may be directed to a primer on punctuation, charged with being illegible, or, hilariously, reminded that job applications with spelling errors will be thrown away.

Sentiment runs so strongly that one can find partisans on both sides of a debate about People who don't capitalize their I's. It even appears that rampant decapitalization might have national security implications. Now, I can understand a certain level of opposition to a practice that gives a demonstrable military edge to the Soviets. After all, the Chinese don’t capitalize and look how quickly they succumbed to communism. But I’m not suggesting that NATO Command should emulate James Joyce in styling its Directives. Let the military emphasize clarity, I say. War is no time to allow oneself to be distracted by the guilty pleasures of hermeneutical exegesis. I even say we require Engineers to capitalize—at least in the name of Safety and Efficiency—though it is my understanding that spelling is generally the greater hurdle in their case.

But when I hear the claim that sentences should be capitalized so the reader may more quickly and effortlessly scan the text and move on, I must object. I don’t necessarily want my reader to race through the piece. In fact, when I choose to work in lowercase (and I do so judiciously), it is usually because I don’t even want the reader to be confident of where one thought ends and another begins. I want him to linger over the ambiguity. I want her to struggle with it, to get lost in it before finding a way out. This will no doubt strike the more conservative readers as utterly bizarre and the militant ones as almost treasonous. After all, what is language for if not to communicate?

But such a question misses the point. Standard English can be profoundly normative. It has a tendency to facilitate the most quotidian presuppositions. Again, I have nothing against standard English. I use it daily. I am using it now. I recognize the sense of the various arguments in favour of linguistic standards. But even the greatest achievements--the best practices—require trade-offs. And while what is sacrificed in the trade-off may be inessential (in whatever context), to dismiss it as intrinsically unimportant or uninteresting is simply rash.

There is much that cannot be communicated by standard English, whatever one’s virtuosity with the language. The recognition of this fact is what motivated Joyce to develop his own notorious style—a style that embodies all the things linguistic conservatives abhor. It wasn’t done capriciously. It was a response to a perceived inadequacy in the language. Those who find it difficult are in the majority. But those who find the required effort prohibitive were never the intended audience anyway. Criticism is the most valuable commodity on offer at e2. But cleverly pointing out that an author’s piece fails to conform to standard punctuation is a tedious joke at best. If the piece is worthy of mockery, surely something more substantive should be cited.

Some writers think that the standard rules of capitalization can be ignored if the situation calls for it. I don't think they can, and the situation never calls for it.

As a writer, you are trying to effectively communicate with your reader(s). Obfuscating your meaning by eschewing the standard is distracting to the reader, and it makes it mechanically difficult to read what may already be a literarily difficult piece. If your writing is difficult to parse, the chances of your audience actually reading it decline. If your writing is too difficult, it won't be read at all — by anybody.

This concept applies to other disciplines as well. QWERTY keyboards continue to be made and sold today. Why? It's what people expect, understand, and know. Related to writing, serif fonts tend to be used because they are easier to read (when presented at the standard of 12pt) for extended periods of time¹. Could you use Arial anyway? Sure, but why inconveneince the reader? Mechanics and meaning are separate entities, and they should be treated as such.

To return to the subject of capitalization, it is important to use mechanics with which your reader is familiar. Capitalizing "I" may seem unimportant to you, but it catches me off guard every time I see "i" in a sentence. I don't necessarily think that "I" am more important than "you;" I just happen to have become accustomed to the way things are done. The same goes for capitalizing proper nouns and the first words of sentences. They serve to alert the reader that there is something different about that word. The first capital of a sentence reinforces the sentence break, and the capitalization of proper nouns demonstrates that not all airports are Chicago O'Hare International Airport, etc..

It is completely possible to communicate complex ideas while adhering to the established rules. If you feel that you genuinely need to break the rules to make your point, I argue that your writing isn't strong enough.

So you've got an original idea or an outstanding story to relate to me? Your ideas are just as original when properly capitalized. Delivering a speech at a near-inaudible volume level doesn't make your ideas more profound. It makes them harder to take in. The same idea applies to capitalization. Allow me to understand your words so that I can attempt to understand your ideas.

Thank you.


† Similarly, seeing "Ich" in the middle of a German sentence would catch me off guard, as well.

References

  1. Typography: serif vs. sans-serif, Frank Ates, http://kurafire.net/log/archive/2005/07/23/typography-serif-vs-sans-serif

The following has little or nothing to do with the above debate...

So you're making a website, or perhaps a legal document, or maybe just some documentation on software, and you have some text you have deemed to be very important, like headers for instance. Since they're so important, you might decide, let's put it in ALL CAPS!

How about "no"?

Denizens of the internet have long considered chatting in all caps "yelling" and therefore rude. But that's not the issue I'm taking with all caps here. Did you know that, as well as sometimes looking rude, text in all caps is less readable?

That's right. Studies and software/website/webware usability tests have shown that text in ALL CAPS is 13 to 20% less readable. That's right, I said less. Counter to what a great number of us have been taught, or assumed, putting text in all caps will not make them more readable - quite the opposite. It may make it more noticeable, but that won't necessarily make it more readable. Therefore, if you have something really important to say, it is actually not a good idea to PUT IT IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.

I personally attended Human-Computer Interaction seminars at a conference in June, 2006 with the Nielsen / Norman Group - a consulting firm - out in San Francisco, California. A good deal of all the seminars discussed the importance of usability, whether it be for software or websites. In one lecture the instructor talked about how all caps was less readable. It wasn't until he pointed out that I really noticed that it was true the next time I read a block of text in all caps. And then I saw that fact in action in another seminar where they showed us footage of actual usability tests. In one a woman was instructed to go to a website and find "Investor Relations" information. It took her upwards of ten minutes and many lookovers of a the About Us page to find it. It was very painful to watch her skip over the "INVESTOR INFORMATION" link time after time after time (we watched a split screen, one of her, and one of the website as she was looking at it, her cursor went right over it far too many times!). The fact that it said "Information" instead of "Relations" was only one problem (people have grown quite used to the term being "Investor Relations" - there's a whole lecture there about web terminology standards). The other was that the link was in all capital letters.

To knock the point out of the park, we saw many more examples of users not noticing or not reading headers, or even worse, navigation items on websites only because they were in all caps. And every single disclaimer page, with all the legalese, was a bad example of this practice. Lawyers tend to make things in all capital letters that they think are most important, which often can entail entire paragraphs, without realizing that those blocks of text will actually be the least read. This is assuming, of course, that anybody is reading that legal crap to begin with.

Still not convinced? Try reading the following two paragraphs that are identical except for their cases. Time yourself if at all possible. Or just notice, viscerally, which has a more readable feel to it, which is easier for your eyes to process.

MANY PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY LAWYERS, DO NOT REALIZE THAT PUTTING TEXT IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS IS ACTUALLY LESS READABLE. THEY PUT LARGE BLOCKS OF TEXT IN ALL CAPS NOT REALIZING THAT ALL THEY ARE DOING IS CREATING LARGE WALLS OF TEXT THAT ARE NOT LIKELY TO BE READ, MUCH LESS UNDERSTOOD EFFICIENTLY. THIS IS A CONVENTION, LIKE MANY OTHERS, THAT IS MIRED IN SUPERSTITIOUS TRADITION AND IS EMPLOYED OVER AND OVER AGAIN JUST BECAUSE IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN DONE AND WITHOUT ANY SERIOUS THOUGHT ON THE PART OF THE CONTENT WRITERS OR DESIGNERS.

Now try this...

Many people, especially lawyers, do not realize that putting text in all capital letters is actually less readable. They put large blocks of text in all caps not realizing that all they are doing is creating large walls of text that are not likely to be read, much less understood efficiently. This is a convention, like many others, that is mired in superstitious tradition and is employed over and over again just because it has always been done and without serious thought on the part of the content writers or designers.

The difference can be subtle, I know, but notice how many times in the all caps paragraph that you may have had to reread a word or two or back up any because it felt like you missed something. That is where that 13 - 20% less readable figure comes in. Notice how much easier it was to read the second paragraph.

I'm not saying never use all caps for headers or buttons in navigation. But I am saying if you have to use it, use it sparingly. You might think it looks cool stylistically, but one thing I learned at the conference is that a lot of things us designers like to do to websites to make them look cooler might actually detract from its usability and for many websites usability is more important than looks. So if you have content that is really important, make sure that - in the case of a website - the link to it and/or the content itself is in lower case or mixed caps.

rootbeer227 says: "...could you add what you have shown but not explicitly said: that italics is usually the proper option for emphasis? (i.e. only, less)"

Yes. But I prefer bold wherever it's acceptable. And I also have an affinity for small caps. No studies have been done, as far as I know, on the readability of small caps. And you can only accomplish that in CSS.

rootbeer227 replies: "...I generally use boldface for key words and phrases rather than emphasis. Things that, were you reading a textbook, would appear in the glossary. Also, headers."

Sources:
www.mcneese.edu - HTML version of a PDF
dr-bob.org - HTML version of a PDF

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