Capitalist society

American popstars with mockney accents. Designer clothes with the labels on the outside. Fishknives. You’re suitably derisive of all such affectation.

Yet when it comes to that presentation, email memo or press release, isn’t there a tiny part of you that’s tempted to aggrandise things a little? Wouldn’t your prose be that little bit more impactful, impressive, heck, downright important-sounding if you capitalised a few words? Just some of the important ones of course – like Strategy, Emerging Markets and (that repeat offender) Diversity.

The trouble is, as with dodgy accents, designer logos and unnecessary tableware, to those in the know such artifice betrays not just an ignorance of the correct way of doing things, but an embarrassing insecurity. It tells the literate that not only does the writer not know the difference between a proper noun and the common-or-garden variety, but also that he or she prefers to hide such ignorance behind grandiose gestures of self-importance.

It says to the reader: ‘My Diversity Strategy for Emerging Markets is bigger and better than yours. It’s the Platonically ideal Strategy, the Über-Strategy and Ur-Strategy against which all other strategies are measured and found wanting.’

That may, indeed, be the case, but a whole lot of other writers think the same of their strategies too.

So let’s get this straight: in English a common noun is a person, place or thing, and unless it comes at the beginning of a sentence, its initial letter is always lower case. Some typical common nouns: ‘diversity’, ‘strategy’, ‘markets’ (emerging or otherwise).

A proper noun is a name given to a specific person, place, or thing, and here you’re free to use that capital letter with impunity. Some typical proper nouns: ‘Clare’, ‘London’, ‘Wednesday’, ‘January’ (though note that seasons, such as ‘summer’, are lower case).

As you’d expect, proper nouns are far rarer than their common sisters. So assuming you’d prefer to avoid accusations of pretentiousness by easily irritated grammar geeks (and also that you’re not writing in German, which capitalises all nouns), then remember this: you’re statistically more likely to be correct if you err on the side of the wonderfully unassuming lower case letter.

3 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Daniel says:

    Hear, hear! I couldn’t agree more! Over-capitalisation is an increasing trend which really irks me.

    I agree with your comment that misplaced capitals are a sign of insecurity. Capitals are seen as a sign of boldness and therefore so many people in a quest to demonstrate their authority tend to use them unnecessarily.

    I’m not sure where this trend began or when. But it seems increasingly commonplace for the first letters of words in newspaper headlines to be capitalised (or should that be capitalized?!) in the US. I’m sure it won’t be long before the capital letter seeks world domination…

    Heck, why stop at capitalising just the first letters? Perhaps we should capitalise every letter in every word. If we’re going to be bold, let’s really make an effort!

  2. KEB says:

    Clare, I think you mean:

    My Diversity Strategy for Emerging Markets is bigger and better than yours. Its the Platonically ideal Strategy, the ber-Strategy and Ur-Strategy against which all other strategies are measured and found wanting, innit.”

  3. Nic says:

    But when does a ‘specific … thing’ become a general one? The border between one and the other sometimes seems quite hazy.
    The trend is actually away from uppercase nouns. Our great stylists – Johnson and Gibbon, Fielding and Hume – acknowledged the Anglo-Saxon origins of our language in their use of uppercase for all nouns. Only in the 19th century did this usage change for common nouns and even in the 20th century the great Ernest Gowers recommended that if in doubt one should go for uppercase.

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