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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.


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

Arguing on principle against nonstandard capitalization entails a monstrous fallacy. I have excised its ebon heart. Here: see it wrench and pound.
Form and substance don't mix. The first's only a gloss over the second; style cannot contribute to meaning.
See those leathery valves spurt? That grainy dark ichor, there? That's the unnecessary dichotomy upheld by those who distinguish style from content. That choking miasma? The stench of brimstone. Let's get some fresh air and talk about this.

Meaning is the effect of what is read. It is made in a collaboration between the reader and the written. Meaning is irreducible to mere information.

The prose texture of technical manuals might be the default for written communication. But it is nevertheless a stylistic decision. Such rigorous adherence to The Rules does not make them into a transparent, immaculate container for some sort of pure meaning.

No matter how sleek and clean the lines are, how straightforward, the style will not cancel itself out. Style is inextricable from content. It is a function of every choice the writer makes -- what-to-write-about and how-to-write-it are facets of each other.

Readers are caught offguard by an i. That's the idea -- or at least one possible reason not to capitalize that pronoun. It may jar readers; sound a chime that means This text is a self-contained world, and get us to slow down, take every word in turn, savor every way they interact. There are myriad reasons to use nonstandard capitalization. The same goes for line-breaking, for questions of word-order and nonstandard usage, and for moves far more peculiar. (I once read a great poem that consisted of printed text with handwritten annotations in the margin.)

To break the traditional rules of grammar is to step outside the system. Its rules are vast, and allow for a great deal, but they do not encompass every conceivable meaning. No matter how complex the system, there is always much it cannot say. For this reason it is the writer's prerogative to fuck the system, and free us from the illusion that any set of rules might delineate human thought.

Here's some e.e.cummings.
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones ...
cummings, here, does not capitalize I, although elsewhere he uses the rules of capitalization normally. This is no arbitrary choice. He is making a specific statement about the smallness of a single human viewpoint in the face of love. i, here, is a diminished I. The narrator has been confronted by the numinous, and made humble.

Look at this, too. cummings breaks a very tight grammatical unit when separating your and body with the first line's ending. By doing this, we get the following line:
body. It is so quite new a thing.
The second line's meaning is substantially deepened by this juxtaposition. Using no extra words at all, cummings directs the referent of 'It' toward a more abstract sense of embodiment, as well as the body of the narrator's lover. For the narrator, noticing the sensual world is a revelation of its own, generated out of this specific apprehension of love.

That specific technique's nothing to do with capitalization, but I mention it because all enjambment is outside the system of grammar venerated by cudgel-brandishing librarians. Line-breaking is always the poet's judgement call, and always directed towards the functional effect that happens within the reader. Of course, I've argued that everything is of this nature; line-breaking, though, is blatant about it.

Lower case does not entail obfuscation. Bad writing is the only obfuscation. Here's some Bukowski, whose poems are cleaner than anything I've ever read. He does it through pacing, word choice and brute passion. The lower case only accentuates the linear, stark meaning. Listen.
my goldfish stares with watery eyes
into the hemisphere of my sorrow;
upon the thinnest of threads
we hang together,
hang hang hang
in the hangman's noose;
I stare into his place and he into mine...
he must have thoughts,
can you deny this?
he has eyes and hunger
and his love too
died in January; but he is
gold, really gold, and I am grey
and it is indecent to search him out ...
Anyone who has difficulty reading this would have the same difficulty with reading anything.

Not all lower case is used toward such blazing clarity, true, but clarity is not an end in itself. The meaning of the poem is the effect of the poem read, after all. Some poems are labyrinthine, are to be wandered. But it would be inappropriate to say that a hedge-maze obfuscates a garden. The hedge-maze, like the winding and complex poem -- like any work at all -- is something to be experienced on its own terms.

Transcending the rules isn't only applicable to poetry. Writing contains what the writer wants. In the landmark anthology of speculative fiction Again, Dangerous Visions, cartoonist Gahan Wilson contributed a short story illustrated smearily with Rorschach-esque blots. Thirty years later, the technique remains audacious, even shocking. These ink blebs, though, are central to the story's workings. They pull their weight. That's why it's brilliant, not merely gimmicky. They cause the story to transcend certain limits which the reader had, until that moment, taken for granted.

Word for word, poetry is far harder than prose to write, because poems shape the reader's attention on a level nearly microscopic -- writing prose with such an attention to synergy and nuance would result in magnificent work, but it would take a week to finish writing a page. Additionally, lingering on the resonance of every interconnected word isn't the usual way people read prose.

We can say, though, to hell with the usual way. In the dialectic of reader and written, the written has a privileged place -- it paces and directs the reader's imagination. It is a wonderful thing when a work of prose uses this privilege to extinguish another needless dichotomy -- the one that says poetry is fundamentally different from prose.

Bringing the techniques of poetry into a work of prose is always audacious, because prose is an arena in which most of these techniques remain unproven. It's a usage that must be fine-tuned to each individual work. Writers of free-verse, for example, have been exposed to a large body of work against which they can compare the efficacy of their techniques -- but in the case of mingling this idiom with the structure or tone of, say, a novel, it's mostly roll-your-own.

Much of the time, the effect can be accomplished subtly. Look at how Faulkner twists our syntactical expectations here:
"Mister." Luster said.
He looked around. "What." He said.
"Want to buy a golf ball." Luster said.
"Let's see it." He said. He came to the fence and Luster reached the ball through...
This all comes from the perspective of a mute, mentally disabled 'manchild'. (No, not Faulkner.) This narrator sees without comprehension, only able to grasp concepts that apply directly and concretely to him -- and this flat, linear mentality is echoed in every sentence of that chapter, over and above the mere informational content of the words.

Later in the book, a different narrator is used; different techniques convey a different mental set. This time, Faulkner is ostentatious, dazzling:
youve never done that have you
what done what
that what I have what I did
yes yes lots of times with lots of girls
then I was crying her hand touched me again and I was crying against her damp blouse then she lying on her back looking past my head into the sky I could see a rim of white under her irises I opened my knife
do you remember the day damuddy died when you sat down in the water in your drawers
I held the point of the knife at her throat
it wont take but a second just a second then I can do mine I can do mine then
This closeness and immediacy is once again beyond what normal grammar would allow. Of course the details of character and description form its core, but when Faulkner shapes the narrative with the tools of free verse, they are accentuated into breathless truth. Readers can experience the mind of Quentin Compson with a purity that bests day-to-day experience of one's self.

All this is hard, very hard; and though adherence to proper grammar is certainly the default mode of writing, that doesn't imply any weakness. The goal is to align two understandings of the work, which might be called style and content. When they are indistinguishable, the writing is whole.

Edited once to broaden the analysis into prose.
Edited twice more to smooth over somebody's hurt feelings.

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.


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."

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

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