Grammar Gremlins: Capital Letters Count

The Gremlins spotted this meme on Facebook the other day:

Dear people who type in all lowercase,

We are the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse.


Capital Letters

“Here’s a topic we haven’t addressed,” they chortled. “Get busy.”


gremlin-2No one seems to know where the term capital letter came from, but uppercase and lowercase spring from the days of hand-set movable type, when the cases containing the capital letters were stacked above those containing the smaller letters. These simple terms replaced the earlier majuscule and minuscule, undoubtedly a welcome change.


Although most of us have a fairly firm grasp of the uses of capital letters, The Merriam-Webster Concise Handbook for Writers devotes 26 pages to the subject. Capitalize the first word in a sentence, of course, and in a quotation. Capitalize the important words in a title: The Title of the Book, not The Title Of The Book.


Nowhere in those 26 pages, nor in any other resource I checked, is it suggested that the word the should be capitalized anywhere but at the beginning of a sentence or a title. I suspect people are using it for emphasis in sentences like these: Everyone called the football coach The Old Man. They took a cruise on The Queen Mary. If the doesn’t begin the sentence, don’t capitalize it.


We all know that proper nouns are capitalized. (At one time all nouns were capitalized in English, a practice still followed in German.) Merriam-Webster says, “A capital is used with a proper noun because it distinguishes some individual person, place, or thing from others of the same class.” (Yeah, capitalizing all the nouns might be simpler at that, but it would never work on a cell phone.)


As pointed out in the sad tale of Uncle Jack and the horse, names and terms of address give people the most trouble (and have more potential for twisting the meaning of a sentence!).


Family terms should be capitalized when used with or in place of a name:

Get Uncle Jack off that horse! My uncle is out riding.

I talked to my mother about it, but not to Dad.

Where are you going, Mom? Wait for me, Sis!


Nicknames should be capitalized, but general terms of endearment or pet names (dear, gremlin-3honey, sweetheart, and so on) should not. The line between nicknames and pet names is a little hazy, and your mileage may vary on that one. (I’m guessing here that if you call someone Horseface all the time, it’s a nickname, but used once in a while it’s only a lowercase insult.) As for terms of endearment, I could swear that I was taught, back in a previous century, to treat those as names. I’m rather relieved to ditch that idea.


Merriam-Webster capitalizes titles like doctor, captain, or senator when used with a person’s name or alone in place of a name in direct address, but not otherwise.

How much time do I have, Doctor?

Tell the captain to get down here.

I saw Senator Crank kick another senator out of his office.


Some languages do not use letter cases at all, but like most conventions that have survived centuries of English usage, capital letters add to the clarity of the written language. So watch those majuscules and minuscules and keep your uncle out of trouble.


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