Category Archives: Capitalization

When acronyms should not be capitalized

Acronyms, abbreviations in which each letter is the first letter of a word in a phrase, are customarily capitalized. But not always. Laser, for example, is an acronym that stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation; the word is now so common that nobody thinks of it as an acronym, and subsequently nobody capitalizes it. This seems to be governed by the same mechanism as the disappearance of hyphens in compound words: as words get more common, they tend toward the style of normal running text—that is, lowercase.

Benelux is another acronym, standing for Belgium Netherlands Luxembourg, but it’s not written BeNeLux. A growing convention, which I first came across in Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, dictates that if an acronym is pronounced as a word, then it should not be written in all caps. (As opposed to initialisms, which are pronounced as a series of letters. Compare Nato to USA.)

Still, plenty of people capitalize NATO and AIDS and NASA, and I don’t think anyone would argue that doing so is incorrect. (People have certainly argued about stranger things, though.) But one case comes to mind wherein capitalizing certain acronyms is seen as gauche at best: The neographic texting/Internet shortcuts, most notable among them lol.

22344_250266667263_5206655_nPeople who capitalize LOL have long been the subject of Internet ridicule. There is no shortage of forum messages, Facebook pages, tweets, or blog posts about the practice. The Internet community, so varied in other respects, seems to be in agreement here. And just as Apple iOS’s autocorrect feature has caused strife for other reasons, people seem to hate that it capitalizes LOL for them. Why is this?

The consensus is that capitalizing LOL is the purview of old people and other e-newbies. And no millennial worth his weight in iPhones wants to be seen in this light. “We get why you people might think it should be capitalized like a normal acronym,” the collective voice of the Internet seems to say, “but you need to get with the program and realize it’s not.” It’s quite interesting that the convention evolved such that this acronym (along with others, like ikr, idk, btw) should be treated quite differently than normal.

What’s going on here? The preference stems from the pervasive practice of writing casual text in all lowercase. Casual text values simplicity and speed, and pressing that shift button is seen as unnecessary. In such environments, sentence starters, proper nouns—even the letter I—tend to be written in lowercase. Given that such acronyms are found almost exclusively in casual contexts, it makes sense that it would need to be written in lowercase as well.

It seems lol is here to stay, and it’s being used in more and more places. It’s crawled from the trenches of Internet subculture to some less-important business emails, which has been quite a journey. I don’t foresee that it’ll go much further, but who knows. In any case, it does seem to be shifting a bit as it goes. For example, I am seeing Lol more and more often: The first L is capitalized when the word begins a sentence; in other words, we see this neographic token in environments where not all orthographic norms are flouted (we relent to capitalize the first letter in each sentence, but no way are we going to capitalize LOL).

On a somewhat unrelated note, you might be interested in the equivalents of lol in other languages.

Does ALL CAPS always mean shouting?

We don’t think about capital letters too much. We stick them on automatically at the start of sentences and proper names, and that’s about it. We see them on signs and newspaper headlines and generally think nothing of it. But there’s one place where they do call our attention: on the Internet.

ONLINE, IF WE SEE SOMETHING WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS, ESPECIALLY IF WE KNOW IT WAS WRITTEN BY A PERSON (NOT A MACHINE), we tend to think of it as shouting. On some level, this seems intuitive. It’s a visual metaphor: If shouting is talking with a big voice, then shouting in text would be writing with big letters. (Anyone figure out how to whisper?)

But is that the end of the story?

I investigated this question in my master’s thesis, and I found another important motivation for writing something in all caps: semantic highlighting. For example, if I write “I just wanted to say thanks for the PRESENT you got me,” it’s unlikely that I’m shouting the word “present.” Instead, I wanted to highlight that word’s meaning—and often in text boxes the only way to do so is by using capital letters.

Furthermore, I found that there is yet another use of all caps that has nothing to do with shouting: It’s to be colloquial. This usage is most often seen among the elderly, some of whom apparently enable caps lock so that they can see the letters more clearly—after all, they’re bigger.

But in Spain, for example, where I carried out my Master’s research, this behavior is much more deep-rooted: Written Spanish uses accent marks to distinguish certain sounds, but for a long time these accent marks were considered optional above capital letters. Therefore, people began to write in capital letters when they wanted to type faster and more casually, leaving off the accent marks. Hence all caps for colloquial writing.

This all goes to show that there can be multiple explanations for even the things we most take for granted—and that things, especially visual conventions, change across cultures.

Is ALL CAPS hard to read?

A common belief, especially among typographers and designers, is that text in all caps is difficult to read.

The common wisdom argues that this is because capital letters offer fewer visual clues as to their identification. It’s said that lowercase letters are more easily distinguished because of their ascenders and descenders. This seems to make sense if we consider the shapes of each letter:

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

It’s clear that, in the case of the capital letters, each has exactly the same high (except the tail of the Q), while the lowercase letters vary. According to some, we rely on this variation to identify letters quickly.

Besides individual letter recognition, some argue that we recognize whole words at a time. That is, for some words we don’t analyze the individual letters that make it up, but rather we focus on the form of the word in its entirety. The longer it takes us to recognize a word, the slower we read. To illustrate this, let’s consider these two words:

danger dancer

It’s possible that DANGER and DANCER aren’t as easily distinguishable as danger and dancer, no doubt because of the descender on the lowercase g. But is it really likely that we store images of every word in our mind? Perhaps for very common function words such as copulatives and articles… But words like dancer?

Even with all this in mind, we can’t conclude so easily that text written in all caps is inherently difficult to read. In a study by Fryser and Stirling (1984), librarians were tested on their speed in looking up records written in various formats. The results demonstrated that there was no difference in performance between the records written entirely in caps and those written with initial caps. Greer, et al., in 2005 reached similar conclusions in a study of emails in a business setting, except with the caveat that users were less likely to want to read texts written in all caps.

It seems that we may truly have an easier time reading lowercase texts, but not because of any inherent difficulty with reading texts in all caps. Instead, it’s simply a question of frequency. We see lowercase letters more often, so we read them most easily.