Received wisdom among typesetters and designers is that capital letters are harder to read and that all-caps text is especially difficult to read. I’ll address legibility a bit later in this post, but for right now I want to focus on a more pragmatic issue relating to capitalization.

Capital Punishment (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let Go of Capitalizing Every Darned Noun)

by | Sep 22, 2015

Received wisdom among typesetters and designers is that capital letters are harder to read and that all-caps text is especially difficult to read. I’ll address legibility a bit later in this post, but for right now I want to focus on a more pragmatic issue relating to capitalization.

My sense is that most business writers overuse capital letters not in an attempt to improve readability, but instead to create a sense of importance and authority. They tend to capitalize Very Important Nouns.

Some of this appears to come from the legal profession’s tendency to capitalize important parties and items in a contract—such as “the Claimant” or “the Corporation.” Imitating this usage, business writers use capital letters to designate important entities or roles in their own materials. This is especially common in RFP responses, which may feel like a contract (but they most definitely are not).

This generates egregious sentences along the lines of: “The Manager will provide Services for all Clients in the Agreement.” Yikes.

Business writers also tend to use capital letters to indicate categories or separate divisions. This appears frequently in investment management writing. For example, portfolio managers often capitalize various sectors of the market—the “Consumer Goods Sector” or the “Healthcare Sector.” (A similar trend occurs when referring to departments within a company—the “Client Services Department” or the “Pharmaceutical Division.”)

All of these uses are grammatically incorrect. They are also poor style.

Here are just a few reasons to avoid this rampant capitalization of Very Important Nouns:

  1. It is very hard to keep this usage consistent, especially in documents written by committee. If one of your writers capitalizes sector names, then all sector names must be capitalized across your project. Trust me—as someone who has edited a lot of corporate documents, cleaning this up can take a lot of time and adds little value. Pay editors to make your message clearer and more effective, not to make capitalization consistent.
  2. It can (and often does) look very messy and strange. When you suddenly are discussing several sectors within the same sentence, you can get a kind of alphabet soup of capitalized words. (Example: “The IT Department will install the new Analytical Tools for better understanding the Consumer Goods Sector.” It becomes very hard to know here what is official and what is made up. This phenomenon leads to…)
  3. Rampant noun capitalization will make you sound like a pompous windbag who has no personal style. You write as if you are overly proud of yourself and take your company entirely too seriously, especially if you are capitalizing your own products and services (and especially if those aren’t copyrighted or published).

I indicated earlier that this kind of capitalization is grammatically incorrect. Still, you will find that many corporate style guides endorse it. This is usually to support branding initiatives, not to create clarity or improve readability. When I contract to write style guides for clients, I include a lengthy entry on capitalization to clarify such points.

If you don’t have a corporate style guide (or if you don’t like the corporate style guide foisted upon you), you can provide a very basic guideline to your colleagues: stop capitalizing words, unless you are 100% certain the capitalization is grammatically required. I find that it’s better to tell people just to not capitalize anything than to explain what they should capitalize. Give ‘em an inch and all that…

Of course, you want to know what should be capitalized.

As a general rule of thumb, this is easy:

  1. Proper nouns, including names of corporations and titles of officially published/released media (like films or books)
  2. Words at the beginning of a sentence
  3. Words at the beginning of a bullet point (though this is a stylistic decision)
  4. Acronyms, which you shouldn’t be using very many of anyway, but that’s a topic for another post.

There are of course some more complicated cases, such as when to capitalize a direction, like North, or when to capitalize someone’s job title. With the internet, these cases are easy to look up when you come across them. Also, the vast majority of your readers do not understand these obscure rules, either. While I wouldn’t advise that you completely ignore these rules, I also believe that following them relentlessly probably adds little value to your message. You follow rules like these because you care deeply about being correct. If that is the kind of writer you are, I’d recommend hiring an editor or looking issues up on the internet on a case-by-case basis.

A NOTE ABOUT CONTEMPORARY COMPANY’S NAMES

In the internet age of cutesy company names, you will encounter a great deal of capitalization variation, (the “iPhone” anyone?). Newspaper copyeditors are usually sticklers about this and will not allow their writers to use such strange capitalization variations because such capitalization variations are, after all, merely branding strategies.

In my view, business writers can (and probably should) take exception to this rule. Most writers whom I advise invoke company names in the context of the market, not the news, and the market tends to recognize (and value) branding strategies. (In other words, if one of your potential clients is “vWorker,” then you probably shouldn’t try to correct their grammar and write “Vworker” in an RFP response.) If in doubt about how to capitalize a company’s name, consult its web site.

What about this legibility issue?

I started this entry by mentioning the received wisdom that capital letters are harder to read.

This relates mostly to words that are in all-caps. YOU KNOW, THE PROVERBIAL SHOUTING VOICE OF THE INTERNET, RIGHT?

The theory is that words composed of all capitalized letters appear like one rectangular block of text without any vertical variation. In contrast, words with lower-case letters offer much more size variation. (Look at “SIZE” versus “Size” or “GARBAGE” versus “Garbage.” The words with lower-case letters have much more variation.) The idea here is that people read word shapes, not individual letters. All caps only have one shape (a rectangle), so therefore they are harder to distinguish from one another. Here’s a fun fact: New York City decided to replace its all-caps street signs with street signs containing varied case due to this concern.

Recent research casts some doubt on this claim. Some academics have found that upper-case letters can help people with visual impairments read more quickly. This is because larger letters are easier to decipher, and upper case letters are on average larger than lower case letters. (“P” is bigger than “p.”) So, all-caps then would make words easier to read. However, that has nothing to do with the value of lower-case letters versus upper-case letters. Rather, it’s because upper-case letters are just larger.

If you are concerned about legibility in your own publications and projects, then I recommend following this recent research and increasing your font size, not using more capital letters. This will give your materials the larger size that help people, especially those with visual impairments, read more easily.

ONE-TO-ONE DISSEMINATION VS. VISUAL PRESENTATIONS

My focus in this post is on materials that you intend your audience to read word-for-word, either printed or online. So, this applies to reports, white papers, news articles, and letters to shareholders.

This advice does not apply equally to signs or other visual displays of information, most notably PowerPoint presentations. Capitalization works differently in displays than it does in individually read texts. In visual presentations you may want to use capital letters more frequently, especially in headings and sub-headings. (I would not recommend using capitalization too much in headings and sub-headings in printed material.)

Even in visual presentations, though, don’t capitalize words in order to indicate Something Very Important. Don’t capitalize sector names, company departments, etc., and please do not use all caps in your bullet points. Keep in mind that the best way to improve readability is to increase font size, not to use more capital letters.
For the best resource I’ve found on these and other issues relating to layout and typography, consult the incredible Butterick’s Typography, a true e-book (rather than just a PDF copy of a book) available for free!

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