Capitalization is an area of mechanics dealt with several preceding posts, including “How do I know when to capitalize a word?” It is another example of how language and its conventions change, as well as the importance placed in dealing with them.
For instance, “unnecessary or missing capitalization” appears as error # 8 in the Top Twenty list, though errors of capitalization did not occur on the original 1986 study “Twenty Most Common Errors.”
One recent post dealt with three consistent rules of capitalization:
- capitalize the first letter of every sentence
- capitalize the pronoun I
- capitalize the initial letter of proper nouns
Capitalization is important because, along with other mechanics like punctuation, it helps convey information. For example, we distinguish word groups as sentences when they begin with a capital letter and end with a period (or other mark of end punctuation) – the first rule listed above. It is one of the markers of an independent clause, as we defined in an earlier post on punctuating compound sentences.
As noted in The New York Times article announcing a change in their style in capitalizing, contemporary usage “tends to favor less capitalization.” Less is more seems to be the trend, as we have seen with other punctuation, including commas and periods (which we dealt with in the post on the Oxford comma and the period or full stop).
There has been an increase in more informal writing, or what is sometimes called casual text, in the mediums of text messaging, email, social networking, or instant messaging in which people use lowercase and not any capitals. These electronic communications ignore the rules of capitalization. In fact, it can seem unnecessary to capitalize in these contexts – or use punctuation, especially periods, when many view sending a text signals the end and a period is redundant, even hostile to many recipients, as noted in the post “Stop with the full stop or period in texting.”
Even though it has also fallen the victim of text writing, the rule of capitalizing the pronoun I may seem obvious because that has been the convention for a very long time. In fact, according to O’Conner and Kellerman in their Grammarphobia blog, the capitalized “I” first showed up about 1250. It took a few hundred years to become the norm, but as they write, there is “no egocentric reason why we capitalize the first-person pronoun ‘I’; rather, a capital I is more distinct and less likely to get lost or be misread in a manuscript, especially a handwritten one.
Rules of capitalization vary, not only in different languages, but also in individual style guides of English.
For instance, for rule 3 – capitalize the initial letter of proper nouns – there are different approaches. An example is the treatment of the proper noun New York State: the name of the Empire State will be written as New York State according to the Gregg Reference Manual but as New York state according to Associated Press Stylebook.
Though we all may have our preferences as to capitalization styles, these variations are reminders that there may be in-house or organizational style guides that will dictate our use of capitals in the writing we do for work or publication – and these rules may or may not follow popular trends.