Saturday, 15 March 2014


I must commence with an apology to anyone who clicked on this title expecting a vituperative diatribe against the evils of modern capitalism. I’ll provide that at a later date. Meanwhile, if you thought that I’d be denouncing the way that all the cash for infrastructure development seems to be going into my home country’s capital city, leaving provincial municipalities to scrabble for scraps from the rich man’s table, I’m afraid that I have bad news. I won’t be. Not yet.

However, I will be posing this question: are capital letters necessary? I had no thoughts on the subject until I started editing other people’s books and realized that nobody seemed to know the rules. Everybody was fine with the obvious ones, beginning a sentence, abbreviations, the initial letters of people’s and countries’ names, things like that, but I quickly discovered that there was a large grey area where authors appeared to be making up their own rules based, presumably, on what they considered important.

Thus a political scientist might have written about the British Government, or a Catholic apologist about the Pope, or a biologist about the Theory of Evolution. A schoolteacher might teach Mathematics, or Geography, or History, while other academics might refer to their place of work as ‘the University’. In none of these instances is an initial capital necessary, and their use in such circumstances isn’t easy to justify, except as an affectation.

I encountered the reductio ad absurdum of this approach to capitalization in a book on leisure management that I once proofread (I usually worked on science and philosophy titles, but also as usual I needed the money). After correcting several instances of “Leisure Manager”, my gast was finally flabbered by a passing reference to “the City’s Ice Hockey Team” (the Sheffield Steelers would have been acceptable with initial capitals). It was this absurdity that first suggested to me the idea that upper-case letters are never necessary but are merely a convention. Perhaps their use could be abolished.

However, I do foresee difficulties with any move to eliminate the use of capital letters entirely. It seems to be an elementary point, but it is clearly desirable that we continue to distinguish between ‘be’ and ‘Be’ (the symbol for beryllium), and also between ‘he’ and ‘He’ (the symbol for helium), although in both these cases the context should make it easy to determine which of these the writer intended. We would also need to know whether we were being led astray or were using LED lighting.

Mention of light-emitting diodes reminds me of the trend, over the last century, to change the way abbreviations are represented. At one time, it was standard practice to punctuate abbreviations (e.g., N.A.T.O.), but it is rare nowadays to see the North Atlantic Treaty Organization represented in this way. In fact, the trend has been, especially with pronounceable abbreviations, to dispense not only with the punctuation but also with all but the initial capital. You may think, given what I’ve written above, that I approve of this, but there are potential pitfalls. Thus, I would expect the average Westerner to recognize ‘N.A.T.O.’, ‘NATO’ or ‘Nato’, but what about ‘Asean’ (Association of South-East Asian Nations)? I suspect that many would have to reach for a suitable reference book, because if it is being encountered for the first time, its status as an abbreviation will not be obvious. And, it should be noted, both acronyms contain letters that under normal circumstances would be capitalized: ‘Atlantic’ in Nato and ‘Asian’ in Asean. However, another acronym that has been in the news lately—‘Libor’, London inter-bank offered rate—could be excused on the grounds that only the L represents a word that ought to be capitalized.

Interestingly, ‘LED’ is the only common abbreviation I can think of that is spelled out (‘el-ee-dee’) rather than pronounced as it appears (‘led’), which is probably the reason the capital letters have been retained, while terms such as ‘laser’ (light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation) and ‘scuba’ (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) have become so thoroughly naturalized in the language as ordinary words that many people will be unaware that they started life as acronyms, especially as any use of capitals now would seem distinctly bizarre.

There is one use of a capital letter that is difficult to avoid, and that is for the first-person pronoun I. A few years ago, I tried to eschew the use of capital letters entirely—signing my name dennis hodgson, for example—but it did seem strange to me to write ‘i’ for me. This is partly because the ninth letter of the alphabet is one of only two letters that comes as two separate pieces, and having a two-piece letter that is meant to refer to oneself seemed uncomfortably schizophrenic.

Consequently, although I continue to avoid using capital letters whenever I think they are unnecessary, I cannot provide a set of rules for their use. All I can do is to suggest that they are used sparingly, but also consistently.

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