One of the things that we editors and proofreaders pay attention to is the use of capital letters. But does this really matter? Are we just being pedantic?
Let’s look at how capitals are normally used, how they’re often misused, and what difference it actually makes.
When to use capitals
Here’s a round-up of the main types of words that should be capitalised (in other words, they should start with a capital) if we follow normal conventions. It isn’t meant to include every possibility; for something more complete, you can turn to an authority on editorial style, such as New Hart’s Rules, Butcher’s Copy-editing or the Chicago Manual of Style.
We usually should capitalise:
Where it often goes wrong
In informal writing, words that should be capitalised frequently aren’t. But – honestly – we editors and proofreaders are not the grammar police (or even the Grammar Police), and that kind of writing isn’t really our concern.
In material that’s written for business or public information purposes, I’ve found that the more common problem is overuse of capitals.
Here are some things that people often capitalise needlessly, with examples:
I looked at some of the likely reasons behind this in an earlier post, ‘Writing tips: Hypercapitalisation – why do we do it?’
The inevitable ‘it depends’ part
As with many aspects of written English, there are grey areas. This is where style choices and context come into play. Here are a few of them (a competent editor can help you with the rest, and with the details):
In these cases, consistency is key, along with thinking about how formal the writing should be and who it’s aimed at. Here’s my recommended rule of thumb: if you’re in doubt after giving it due consideration, use lower case. Also, don’t use capitals as a way of trying to impress the reader – it might well have the opposite effect ...
Why it matters
Capitals stand out. This is basically why we use them: to signify the start of a sentence, to distinguish someone’s name from the ‘ordinary’ words around it, and so on.
The downside of this is that they’re obtrusive. They divert the reader’s attention away from other letters, clutter up the page and disrupt the flow of the text.
Imagine your reader’s reading experience as a car journey. When they reach the end of it, you hope they will have absorbed your message and will be ready to do what you want them to. Each capital letter will be a bump in the road, making the journey less smooth than you’d like it to be. Or, as Jakki Bendell puts it in ‘The Seven Deadly Writing Sins’ on the ICE Training website, a cluster of capitals in nearby words can look ‘like a row of telegraph poles’.
Unnecessary capitals can also have a jarring effect on the reader, and make the writing look pompous, self-important and not particularly professional.
Unexpected lower-case letters can be distracting as well. If a reader comes across something like ‘the duke of Cambridge’, they might pause for a moment and wonder whether that should be ‘Duke’. Some style guides do recommend this kind of usage, but there’s a risk that some readers will find it amateurish. (Back on the driving analogy for a moment: let’s think of this as a pothole.)
Finally, as well as making the reader pause awkwardly and wonder about the writer’s or organisation’s credibility, either type of mistake can cause genuine confusion. For example, ‘Office software’ seems to mean the Microsoft suite that includes Word and Excel, whereas ‘office software’ looks like a more general reference to software that’s used for office work.
So, I hope I’ve convinced you that capitalisation choices do make a difference, and that it’s worth getting your writing thoroughly checked to make sure those choices have been made wisely. That will help your readers to focus on what you’re saying rather than how you’re saying it – this, I think, is largely what editing is about.
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.