I’ve been a copywriter for over 12 years now. Probably about eight solid months of that time have been spent correcting capitalisation errors. Like incorrect apostrophes, bad caps induce a self-righteous fury in professional writers and other sticklers for linguistic correctness. They jump off the page, howling their perpetrators’ ignorance at the eye-rolling editor.
“We’re looking forward to Optimising the performance of our Networking Team. This will help drive Sales growth, especially in Emerging markets.”
To make matters worse, editing caps is a real RSI-inducer, with the worst passages requiring painfully repetitive dexterity. Try to do it the easy way by using ‘change case’ on blocks of text and you inevitably end up with a rogue ‘john smith’ or an ‘ibm’.
In a 1933 edition of The English Journal, a study of children’s capitalisation errors reveals ascribing capitals to common nouns to be one of the most frequent mistakes. However as the article points out, the errors were: “in large part explainable, logical and understandable; they were far from being random or senseless.” For example one child capped up the word “Island” throughout a piece on Treasure Island, reasoning that it would always denote a particular place. In other instances, children had used capital letters because they showed emphasis.
Eighty years on, these are precisely the things that we see grown-ups in businesses doing every day. It’s not fair to sneer at them, though. Just as with apostrophes, people get capitalisation wrong because the rules confuse. As this fiddly quiz shows, caps are complex.
What’s to be done? It’s hard to see how anything short of a return to the Draconian English-teaching style of old could bring about lasting change. In the meantime, we could try intensive writing training, motivational posters or maybe “fun” capitalisation exercises.
Professional copywriters are the wrong people to ask, though. Eight months is a lot of billable time. As long as we can put a financial value on correcting caps, the pressure for change sure as hell isn’t going to come from us.