Here’s a capital idea
I know that a lot of people get hot under the collar about the use of apostrophes, but it’s the misuse of something far humbler that ruffles my feathers: the capital letter.
- by Peter Labrow
There’s something funny about being a website copywriter. The nature of the medium dictates that the vocabulary used is more ‘relaxed’ rather than ‘strictly correct’ but, like anyone who cares about his or her craft, I do like to get some things right.
Lynne Truss famously wrote about commas and apostrophes in her bestselling book Eats, Shoots & Leaves – and told of how she obsessively corrects signage in supermarkets when the apostrophe is missing.
Well, I’m personally not one to take my obsessions as far as vandalism but I have to confess to doing a good impression of a grumpy old man when I see obvious mistakes.
One thing which many people seem to get wrong – or make up as they go along – is the use of capitalisation. There are many times when I’m looking at printed materials or website pages and find that the content creator has gone into capitalisation overdrive.
This normally happens because the writer isn’t really sure when to use capitals, so uses them when it ‘seems’ correct. Once applied in one context, when a similar context comes along, the capital is then applied and it soon gets out of control.
Here are some common reasons why people wrongly capitalise:
- They think the word is ‘important’. This is usually because it’s a term in the industry within which they work. So it could be that the words ‘Dance’ and ‘Ballet’ are capitalised. People, these are not proper nouns, they’re common nouns, so unless they’re at the start of a sentence, no capital required.
- It’s a job title. So, for example, you might see ‘Managing Director’ and ‘Financial Director’ capitalised. Again, a job title is not a proper noun, it’s a common noun – we don’t use capitals to imply status. I usually challenge people by asking if they’d capitalise ‘Toilet Cleaner’ – a suggestion that is always found ridiculous, yet grammatically it’s identical (a tip given to me by the wonderful Matthew Male of Future Perfect).
- They’re inventing the word. Take ‘eBook. The writer recognises that ‘ebook’ might not be read properly, so the capital B is added – although the correct form would be ‘e-book’ with a hyphen, like ‘x-ray’ or ‘t-bone’. You wouldn’t write xRay or tBone – it looks daft. Well, so does eBook. It creates wonderful challenges – for example, how do you start a sentence? EBook? Or you need to set the word in all capitals – EBOOK or eBOOK? E`rm… When you create your own rules, expect to have to break others. And how does it look when you have to write e-economy, which looks fine with the correct hyphen, but the writer is now forced to use the far less elegant eeconomy, eEconomy and eECONOMY.
- It’s a service you provide. A Very Important Service, obviously, hence the capitals. But while you might think that your Global Outsourcing needs capitals, it’s doubtful you’d agree with The Supply Of Bananas from your greengrocer. Yet grammatically, they’re identical.
So what’s the impact of this? You could argue that it makes little difference. Well, perhaps, but only if your website visitors’ use of English is equal to, or inferior to, your writer’s. Otherwise – well, to be honest, it looks like it’s written by an amateur within a company that doesn’t know better.
The rules aren’t hard to learn, either. You capitalise:
- the first word of a sentence.
- the pronoun ‘I’.
- family names such as Aunt Jane and Mother (when used as proper names, not as general names such as ‘your mother’).
- titles proceding names such as ‘Major John’ but not when they follow names, such as John Lawton, major.
- the names of religious deities and holy books – such as God, the Koran and Buddha (but not non-specific references, such as ‘more than one god’).
- directions that are names, such as ‘the Southwest’ but not in general text such as ‘you go two miles north’.
- days of the week, months of the year, but not seasons.
- names of countries, counties, nationalities and languages.
- periods and events such as the ‘Edwardian Era’ but not time periods such as ‘the fifteenth century’.
- trademarks such as Microsoft and Apple and acronyms such as IBM and BBC.
The big thing is – don’t make it up. If you invent an in-house rule to capitalise something, when you come across its grammatical equivalent, you’ll have to do the same with that – and before you know it, your website pages will be peppered with capitalisations. What’s worse, it’s almost impossible to remember rules that you invent, so you’ll end up with inconsistent capitalisation throughout your text.
Getting it wrong does create a poor impression of your company. If you can’t even use capital letters correctly, what kind of quality can a customer expect of the rest of your services?