Opinion | Is the lowercase revolution on its way?

Jack Maurer | @JackMaurer10, Chief Copy Editor

For The CW, the bottom line is that we’re a campus newspaper, an important function of which is to equip students with the experience and skills they need to excel in the world of professional media. As long as virtually every major publication continues to use uppercase letters for certain purposes, teaching students to ignore these conventions would hardly serve this goal.”

Many of the decisions I make as The Crimson White’s chief copy editor are obvious: correcting spelling and grammar mistakes, chasing down errant punctuation, breaking up long paragraphs. Many others, not so much. Take, for example, the following phrases:

  1. the university of alabama system board of trustees
  2. vice president for community affairs
  3. head coach
  4. the crimson white newsroom

How should each be capitalized?

There is no universal right answer in most of these cases. The Associated Press Stylebook, whose guidance The CW generally follows, would render the first phrase as “the University of Alabama System board of trustees.” The UA System itself, meanwhile, tends to rearrange the phrase and write “The Board of Trustees of The University of Alabama System” in official communications. 

That’s not incorrect, per se; the important thing is to be consistent — to pick a convention and stick with it.

For the second phrase, capitalization depends on context. Formal titles like “vice president for community affairs” are capitalized in AP style only if they immediately precede a name, as in “Vice President for Community Affairs Samory Pruitt”; otherwise, they stay lowercase: “Samory Pruitt, the vice president for community affairs.”

“Head coach,” on the other hand, is not a formal title according to the AP Stylebook, so it never gets capitalized — except, of course, at the beginning of a sentence, like this one.

As for the last phrase, while The Crimson White uppercases the article “the” in its name, “the” isn’t technically part of the paper’s name in “the crimson white newsroom.” Instead, it serves as a modifier for the noun “newsroom.” To see why this is true, consider that you would refer to the newsroom of the cable television channel CNN as “the CNN newsroom,” even though the channel’s name doesn’t start with “the.” Hence “the Crimson White newsroom.”

Sound confusing? It turns out that capitalization lies at the heart of many of the thorniest style conundrums copy editors face every day. The rules are daunting enough for those of us who specialize in enforcing them; even the most careful writers inevitably make mistakes. At The CW, my copy-editing colleagues and I spend a fair amount of time changing out majuscules for minuscules and vice versa.

One way we could get around this whole issue is by abandoning uppercase letters altogether. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest this. Many people, including me, deliberately disable the automatic capitalization feature on their phones, perhaps in an effort to convey a casual tone. I rarely find that a lack of capitalization makes a text message harder to read.

So what’s stopping editors from saying sayonara to capital letters and going full e.e. cummings in writing of all kinds? Does Big Shift Key have the style guides in its pocket?

I’m not aware of any capitalist (get it?) conspiracy to maintain the orthographic status quo, but there are a few reasons to keep uppercase characters around.

Probably the most important and most agreed-upon function of capital letters is to signal the start of a sentence. periods are easy to miss. When you read the last sentence, did you have to do a double take? Sure, maybe it was because you didn’t expect the sentence to start with a lowercase letter, but a capital letter offers a prominent visual indication that a new sentence is beginning. And if a sentence ends with an abbreviation like “U.S.,” there’s no other way to mark the beginning of the next sentence.

The use of capitals for the first letter of a name or other proper noun is also almost universally observed in edited English, with a handful of exceptions like the name of the writer and activist bell hooks. It’s helpful to know, for instance, whether a writer is talking about Monopoly, the board game, or monopoly, the economic concept, without having to rely on context.

But many, even most, proper nouns are not likely to be mistaken for common nouns. I would argue that “the university of alabama board of trustees” and “vice president for community affairs samory pruitt” are no more ambiguous than their capitalized counterparts.

Initialisms — like “UAPD,” “SGA” or “SEC” — may provide the most compelling case for capitalization. Their lowercase equivalents — “uapd,” “sga,” “sec” — are ugly and hard to read. Besides, how do you distinguish “sec” from the colloquial abbreviation of “second”?

For The CW, the bottom line is that we’re a campus newspaper, an important function of which is to equip students with the experience and skills they need to excel in the world of professional media. As long as virtually every major publication continues to use uppercase letters for certain purposes, teaching students to ignore these conventions would hardly serve this goal.

So if the lowercase revolution happens, it’ll have to start with the biggest players: the Associated Press, the University of Chicago Press (publisher of the Chicago Manual of Style), The New York Times. Until those guys put their shift keys to rest, you can count on The Crimson White’s tireless team of style police to keep quibbling over every letter.

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