All Caps in acronyms & electronic messages

Continuing the discussion of capitalization trends began in the previous post, “less is more” with capitalization.

In 2016, The New York Times announced changes in it capitalization policy. For instance, it switched to lower case for internet (at the same time that the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal did), although it had changed to lower case for web and website several years earlier. It argues that the uppercase Internet “was always a bit of an anomaly” and that it “also reflected a common tendency to capitalize newly coined or unfamiliar terms. Once a term becomes familiar and quotidian, there is a tendency to drop the capital letter.”

The New York Times also has its own rules about acronyms. Capitalization has long been used with acronyms. Formed from the initial first letter of a word in a phrase, acronyms are usually capitalized. Common acronyms include FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation and CIA for Central Intelligence Agency.

There are exceptions to capitalizing acronyms. Some – in which the initial words in original phrase were capitalized – have become so prevalent that the have become common nouns; for instance, radar (short for RAdio Detection And Ranging) and laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).

Similarly, The New York Times has done away with all capitals for acronyms of more than four letters, like Nascar and Unicef: “The goal there, too, is to avoid distraction — we feel that long strings of capital letters are ungainly and stick out too much, especially in headlines.”

Using all capital letters in an electronic message has long been seen as shouting, in fact as far back as 1984 according to Gretchen McCulloch in Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. McCulloch goes on to asset that the use of all caps may be the most famous example of typographical tone of voice,” especially for expressing strong feeling – though not always anger. Emphatic caps are used to express strong emotions such as happiness. In fact the use of all caps in happy messages made it appear even happier: “IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!!!” vs “It’s my birthday!!!” (All-caps, or block letters, McCulloch points out have long been used in handwriting, especially in letters and in comic strips “to avoid the idiosyncrasy of joined handwriting.”)

Text messages, casual e-mails, and instant messages often ignore the rules of capitalization and punctuation. In fact, it can seem unnecessary to capitalize or punctuate in these contexts, as discussed in the blog post on periods.

In other, more formal forms of communication, however, knowing the basic rules of capitalization and using capitalization correctly will present a better image and communicate your message effectively.

When it comes to print, in-house style guides set the standards “in capitalization more than in most other aspects of written English,” states Bryan A. Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage. In these contexts, it will be important to follow the rules, but as we noted at the beginning of the blog, there’s a trend away punctuation and capitalizations: Garner writes, “unless there’s a good reason to capitalize, don’t.”

(References: The New York Times article; Gretchen McCulloch; Garner’s Modern American Usage)

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