Courtesy and Capitalization

Someone (okay, okay, it was Bill Poser) let stodgy prescriptivism out into Language Log:

Capitalization is part of the social convention for writing English. Like the alphabet, it isn’t something that the writing system makes available for manipulation by individual users.

Ah, uh, er? I manipulate standard capitalization ALL THE TIME. Alphåbets, too, but that’s only to be silly; nonstandard capitalization serves a variety of legitimate purposes. If it’s not YELLING or Sniffing Distinction, it’s a sort of facetious code-switching into sCriPt KiDd1e or eXtreme Marketing iDroid. Decry Apple’s branding strategy all you want, it should be clear that capitalization is mutable in a way that alphabets and word order are not.

Responding to, say, bell hooks’s argument against the orthographic standard with a snippy insistence that individuals simply must adhere to the conventions… isn’t that a breach of a linguist’s professional ethics? In any case, Wolfangel is quite right, it’s a discourtesy.

And for the record: Here on the Internets I usually sign my name in lowercase out of pure typographical whimsy. I certainly don’t care if you wish to capitalize it.

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. thoughts of self: conventions of naming - [Mental Ephemera/] on 06 Jan 2015 at 11:41 am

    […] ruffled some feathers; there is an outrage, a total rejection, a supposition that it is a “discourtesy” to naming etiquette. With that said, iĀ applaud wolfangel’s respect for a […]


  1. des von bladet wrote:

    It’s only speaking that gets descriptivised: not even Steven “Ping-Pong” Pinker has conjectured an innate spelling module to the best of my.

  2. yami wrote:

    Surely (1) if our innate Ping-Pong can extend to sign language, it’s flexible enough to cover writing? and (2) our rights as language-users to play with the varied conventions of our native tongues are not dependent on an evolutionary psychologist’s say-so?

  3. denisdekat wrote:

    I love the destruction and recreation of all elements of language. I speak a very strange grammar with my cats Maybe because I studied music

  4. yami wrote:

    Nah, I think it’s that cats are mind-control agents for [insert conspiracy here].

  5. des von bladet wrote:

    Re. Sign-langwidges: No. Sign langwidges work just like oral langwidges, with babies babbling in them and making endearing later out-ironed errors, etc. Just ordinary L1-acquisition.
    The norms for formal writing are what they are, and it is worth knowing them; in other contexts nobody needs anybody’s permission, except perhaps that implicit in the reader’s continuing to read.

  6. mATt wrote:

    It seems to me that there is a useful distinction to be made in manipulating capitalization and spelling in order to convey emotion, emphasis, etc., vs. demanding that everyone else do the same when writing your name.
    From now on I would like everyone to capitize only those letters of my name whose index (treating my name as a string, and counting from 1) corresponds to a prime number.

  7. yami wrote:

    Des: Of course formal writing has norms! So does formal invitation-addressing, and Miss Manners advocates trampling all over those if they happen to conflict with a guest’s preference. I was merely surprised by the implication that writing-norms are somehow less subject to dispute and change than speech-norms. In particular, if style guides at major newspapers place a person’s preferences above the default ruleset, anyone who insists that it must be otherwise is on shaky ground.
    Cognitive mechanisms aside, are the misspellings of schoolchildren not endearing?
    mATt (do you ever go by mATtHeW?):
    You’re right, there is a distinction. But if capitalization-norms are flexible enough to accomodate all that etc., then a couple of lowercased names will probably not bring on the collapse of English literacy. So we are left with a choice: yield to another’s preference, or insist on exercising our own rules simply because We Are Right and They Are Wrong. And that’s just courtesy, isn’t it?

  8. yami wrote:

    Also: Seems that the New York Times vacillates on bell hooks while the LA Times uses lowercase. The NYT gives a little more respect to the iPod, which I do find odd – why should a corporation’s funky capitalization be accorded any more respect than an individual’s?

  9. des luxury yacht wrote:

    Well, names are the property of their owners by established convention, but then there’s the Artist Formerly Known as “Prince”’s quiggle, with which I certainly cannot be arsed.
    Egleesh ‘bladets can’t even be bothered with the Sven-G Eriksson, though. I’ve never seen cat yronwode’s name written with any majuscules, though, but I can’t think where I have seen it in print. The Grauniad, I would bet.

  10. yami wrote:

    Squiggles which don’t appear in the typesetting equipment are a higher level of imposition than miniscules, to be sure.

  11. mATt wrote:

    Yami: point taken. I’m sure that breaking a few spelling rules in writing one’s name won’t lead to the collapse of our language. And there is a case to be made to bowing to someone’s preference, especially if they have a good reason for it. So maybe we should just let it be and continue to write bell hooks.
    My point is that allowing these rules to be bent doesn’t scale well, unless only certain people are allowed to bend them. If “bell hooks” can insist on a funky capitalization, why can’t I? or anyone else? and then you have to remember everyone’s particular fiat in addition to their name. If there was a good reason for doing so, that might be worthwhile. But I guess I’ll admit that my reason for thinking there isn’t a good reason might ultimately come down to annoyance: Why does bell hooks demand her name be written in lowercase? Because she’s so unique that she has to distinguish herself from the rest of the draff even in the spelling of her name? I think it’s ostentatious. I’m unique, too, dammit!

  12. matt wrote:

    One more thing, about the iPod. It’s spelling is part of the branding of the device; capitalizing that second letter helps set it apart (doesn’t it look strange and wrong when people write Ipod or I-Pod)? For a person to do the same thing and try to communicate an image via the spelling of their name just comes across as distasteful.
    But I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong.

  13. Anonymous wrote:

    One more thing, about the iPod. Its spelling is part of the branding of the device; capitalizing that second letter helps set it apart (doesn’t it look strange and wrong when people write Ipod or I-Pod)? For a person to do the same thing and try to communicate an image via the spelling of their name just comes across as distasteful. People should convey their awesomeness in their work (which [hH]ooks certainly does).
    But I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong.

  14. yami wrote:

    I believe ms. hooks is making a statement against authorial ego; as far as I know she uses normal case in her private life (bell hooks is a pseudonym).
    If there were a huge trend of people making up funny capitalizations for themselves, I agree that it could be difficult. But I think the existing pressures against such a trend (you have to constantly explain to everyone what you’re doing and why, people keep getting it wrong anyway, they make fun of you for it, etc.) are strong enough that only a handful of people will ever want to buck convention. I mean, I take it that you don’t normally insist on people capitalizing the prime letters of your name, even though you could.
    Re: your second comment, all the people I know of who prefer nonstandard capitalization are either public figures or teenage girls. Both classes of people have good reason to carefully control their public image. Maybe it is somewhat distasteful that people present such carefully cultivated images of themselves, but welcome to a culture of celebrity and consumerism! Or in the case of teenage girls, viciousness and misogyny.
    Shouldn’t devices also convey their awesomeness in their work, rather than their brand identity?

  15. D. SKye Hodges wrote:

    A friend of mine pointed me to this page. Because, as you can see, I spell my name: SKye, I have since 1993, the earliest record of this goes at least back to 2001:*/ even though the page doesn’t display, the title in the web browser does. Anyway, I don’t think that it is “distasteful” as one person mentioned, in my case I use it to distinguish what _I_PERSONALLY_ consider the feminine: Skye, from the masculine: SKye (I think the Capital K gives it masculinity). Anyway, thanks for the thoughts on capitalization. I’m still keeping my name: D. SKye Hodges

  16. yami wrote:

    And have you found anyone else who agrees with you about that K?

  17. D. SKye Hodges wrote:

    yes, everyone that hears my explanation agrees that my name (with the capitalization) suites me, and when they send me emails, etc, they always address me as: SKye. Do they do that as a courtesy, or do they do that just because it is my name… I don’t know, but they accept it, and they do it.

  18. Kim wrote:

    There is something that really irritates me about nonstandard capitalizations. While I can more easily accept iPod and eBay, I have more of a problem with bell hooks. What bothers in the most is that if “iPod” or “eBay” are at the beginning of sentences, the first letter is also capitalized. (“EBay is my favorite place to shop.”) However, when “bell hooks” is at the beginning of a sentence, the first letter of her name is not capitalized even though it is the beginning of the sentence. (I.e. “bell hooks is a great postmodern author.”) That’s what bothers me.

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