Textual Tourette’s

by Dirk E. Oldman

I have to say first that it’s not my ████ing fault that all the ████ing cusswords are blacked out. ████ that ████. It’s my ████ing ████ of an editor who reckons that some people would be too ████ing distracted by actual naughty words. For ████’s sake. Like a ████ing hundred mother████ing black boxes aren’t distracting?

Does that seem excessive, all that naughty language? Maybe just a teensy touch? Well, yeah. Some things are best used sparingly. They just jump out at you then. Use them too much and they just wear you out.

Now I want you to pick up your nearest newspaper or magazine and hold it at a bit farther than normal reading distance and tell me what things in a given story jump out at you most. Dollars to doughnuts it’s the numbers and the capitalized words. Capital letters jump up.

So they’re useful. They flag very nicely when a sentence is beginning. If you have a name of someone or something, that’s probably an important thing worth catching attention in case you’re looking for it, so it’s good if it’s capitalized:

A seminar in performance studies will be given at 8:00 this evening at New York University by the well-known performance artist and erstwhile peeler Annie Sprinkle.

You see? When, where, who, all jumping up. (Like I said, numerals also jump up, for the same reason: they’re bigger.)

The thing is, though, capital letters are inaudible. They’re like apostrophes: you can’t hear them. They’re also like apostrophes in that the rules for their use are less clear and consistent than you might think. People get confused. They know that you’re supposed to capitalize people’s names, sure. But what about other names? In what circumstances?

Look, according to standard rules, all of the following is properly capitalized:

That guy is President Smith. He’s a real douchebag.

Yeah, Douchebag there is president of the Society to End Toxic Sperm Buildup.

Toxic sperm buildup? You mean TSB?

That’s what I said, Dickweed.

I’m not a dickweed. You’re a dickweed.

It’s no wonder people get confused.

Actually, for a time, a few centuries ago, it was common in English to capitalize nouns. That’s what they do in German now. It’s easy and official in German. But in English we got away from that. Sort of.

We still capitalize important nouns sometimes. Other important words too. Some people think that’s a Very Bad Thing. It’s sure not something you’ll be taught in school. Well, probably not. God knows what’s being taught in schools now. I don’t.

But I can tell you this: people in the world of business have noticed that a word with a capital letter on it looks Important. They may also have noticed how in legal contracts specific defined entities get caps: Furthermore, Supplier shall not concurrently do business with any competitor of the Corporation.

And, unfortunately, they have noticed that words in ALL CAPS really, really jump up and say “Me! Me! Me! Me!” So they often specify their brands (and sometimes slogans and other things too) to be in all caps:

Six out of nine doctors recommend SCRUITOL® for treatment of acute TSB.

Fortunately, context usually lets you know what’s an acronym and what’s a brand name.

But here’s the thing. The companies are not wrong that capitals add an oomph and can be very effective. Most people aren’t really secure in what should and shouldn’t be capitalized and are open to suggestion. So most of them aren’t reading the text thinking “These guys don’t know how to capitalize.” They’re thinking “This guy is President, that’s important. He’s working on Projects, those are important. He has an eye on the Future, that’s big. He sells Products, those are key.”

But you have to be careful with capitals. They’re like using cusswords. If you slip in one here or there, it’s effective. In the whole movie Gone with the Wind, there was exactly one, in “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” and it’s the most memorable line of the movie. In Network, it was “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Yes, damn and hell were strong words one time. (WTF, ya know?)

Even today, if you slip in a vulgarity in just one or two places, heads go up:

We had a lovely day, beautiful scenery, a nice stop by the lake; the only pity is that he doesn’t know how to drive the ████ing car.

I’ve read a lot of stories in my time, but even among the ones that I had trouble setting down, I have to say that this one is really good ████.

Ms. Avalon is a lovely lady of great social graces, and a marvellous hostess; her husband, on the other hand, is a bit of an ███████.

But if you use them too much, they just lose their effectiveness:

That was such a ████ing beautiful day: just ████ing wicked good scenery, and a ████ing nice stop by the lake. But that ███████ doesn’t have a ████ing clue how to ████ing drive.

Yawn. Begins to be like Tourette’s syndrome, doesn’t it? Now look at something like this:

The President of our Company has an important Announcement to make about our Products and their place in the Future.

Everywhere you see a capital letter, imagine a cussword:

The ████ing president of our ████ing company has an important ████ing announcement to make about our ████ing products and their place in the ████ing future.

It’s like textual Tourette’s.

It’s even worse when they toss in all caps, because all caps is like shouting. It jumps off the page so loud, you just want to say “Shut up!” or “Take a chill pill!”

Our core Product is SCRUITOL®, which provides TSB Relief WHEN YOU NEED IT – AS YOU NEED IT.

In fact, when you see all caps, think of it as like not just shouting but barking:

Our core ████ing product is ARF ARF GRRRUFF scruitol, which provides T! S! B! relief AARRRROOOOOOOO BARK BARK when you need it – GRRRRRR ARF ARF ARF BAD BOY BAD BOY as you need it HRRNNGG GRRARF.

Get the idea?

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2 thoughts on “Capitalization.

  1. […] useful for emphasis. This is similar to the problem with capital letters, which have been explained in an unfortunately vulgar way, but go ahead and read if you have a strong […]

  2. […] and effective. It just jumps off the page at you, and it’s not the kind of shouting fit that ALL CAPS […]

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