Capitalization

« previous post | next post »

Alan Levinovitz, "Trump's bizarre understanding of Capitalization is surprisingly Strategic", Washington Post 5/23/2018:

On Monday, President Trump let loose a string of triumphant tweets about China that featured one of his strangest linguistic quirks:

"On China, Barriers and Tariffs to come down for first time."

"China must continue to be strong & tight on the Border of North Korea until a deal is made."

"Under our potential deal with China they will purchase from our Great American Farmers practically as much as our Farmers can produce."

Rule-bound English speakers only capitalize titles, proper nouns, and a few other exceptional words. But for Trump, Farmers, Barriers and Borders are standard fare. In fact, when it comes to abusing letter case, the China tweets look positively restrained compared to this classic from April: "Despite the Democrat inspired laws on Sanctuary Cities and the Border being so bad and one sided, I have instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country. It is a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so naive! WALL"

As the article explains later:

The history of this practice is reflected in "The Chicago Manual of Style," which apparently has not been updated to reflect Trump's practices, "Initial capitals," it explains, "once used to lend importance to certain words, are now used only ironically." But later the guide offers an important caveat: "Words for transcendent ideas in the Platonic sense, especially when used in a religious context, are often capitalized."

Put differently: Initial capitals make words and ideas seem Really Important. They are to meaning-making what flag pins are to patriotism and gold-plating is to value — cheap signals of depth and quality that are somehow taken seriously by enormous numbers of people.

See "…'such matters as Opinion, not real worth, gives a value to'", 11/20/2016, which quotes Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Introduction to Late Modern English, 2009:

The use of extra initial capitals, according to Osselton, steadily increased during the first half of the eighteenth century to about 100 per cent around the 1750s after which this practice was drastically reduced and, fifty years later, abandoned completely. The reason for giving up the practice to capitalise all nouns was pressure from writers, who felt that they could not longer make use of capitals to emphasize individual words, as they had been accustomed to do before such idiosyncratic use of capitals was standardised by the printers.

 



16 Comments

  1. David Marjanović said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 11:24 am

    I suspect the usual two influences: the Constitution & the Declaration of Independence, and Winnie the Pooh.

    The reason for giving up the practice to capitalise all nouns was pressure from writers, who felt that they could not longer make use of capitals to emphasize individual words, as they had been accustomed to do before such idiosyncratic use of capitals was standardised by the printers.

    And indeed, there is no formal or informal tradition of using capitalization for emphasis in German. Even a separate headline capitalization does not exist there.

  2. efnenu said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

    I figure 'label > stereotypical features' is what's behind the modern English use of productive capitalization. Not that different in this case. I'm pretty sure that emphasis is secondary, and that strict noun capitalization has nothing to do with it.

  3. Linda Seebach said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

    I edit letters for a newspaper, and sporadic capitals are very common in submitted letters – ". . . we need Federal and State action . . ." – and it's been that way as long as I've had jobs like that, which is going on 30 years. Maybe they are remembering the Declaration, because they certainly aren't seeing letters published that way.

  4. Lupus753 said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

    Not every noun is capitalized, and he capitalized "great" once, but it still reminds me of German orthography.

  5. John Baker said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 12:52 pm

    Linda Seebach, according to the GPO Style Manual, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2016/pdf/GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2016.pdf, "Federal" should be capitalized in reference to the Federal Government of the United States and "State" should be capitalized in reference to the States of the United States. So that's just a matter of competing standard stylebooks, unlike Trump's usage, which departs from standardization.

  6. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 3:25 pm

    The various cases of capitalisation in Trump's tweets strike me as having different degrees of weirdness. 'Sanctuary Cities' could be the name of a (proposed) institution, and so, at a stretch, could 'the Border', but 'Caravans' is just odd.

    [(myl) Not for 1700 or so — e.g. this from Philippe Avril, Travels into divers parts of Europe and Asia, undertaken by the French King's order to discover a new way by land into China containing many curious remarks in natural philosophy, geography, hydrology and history : together with a description of Great Tartary and of the different people who inhabit there, English translation published in 1693:

    So that I prepar'd to be gone with a numerous Caravan, that was mustering together, and within a short time was ready to depart for Betlis, the Capital City of Curdistan.

    Or from THE LATE TRAVELS Of S. Giacomo Baratti, An Italian Gentleman, Into the remote Countries of the Abissins, or of Ethiopia Interior, English translation published in 1670:

    It was no difficulty to obtain, for he was learned in the Italian Tongue, and well versed in the manner and Customs of the Franks; he was a Man of a swarthy countenance, both pleasant and grave, of a high stature, about 60 years of age, very lusty; he had not many to attend him, for he was not willing to discover himself amongst the Turks, who might have made advantage of him, by obliging him to larger disbursements than his Estate could allow: I was resolved to accompany him into his own Country, and visit the Court of the great Neguz so famous all over the world; we therefore engaged our selves in the Caravan.

    ]

  7. Not a naive speaker said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 4:06 pm

    @Lupus753
    It too reminds me of German ortography. Might have been inherited from his German ancestors. Or a very simple explanation: capitalize what is important.

  8. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 7:28 pm

    Was 18th-century capitalisation really just for emphasis?

    I spent a long time trying to figure out the principles behind Thomas Pynchon's capitalisation in Mason and Dixon, which is written (kind of) in 18th-century style. But I failed to discern a regular system.

  9. arthur said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 10:22 pm

    Donald Trump spent much of his life working with real estate transactions. In legal transaction documents such as sales contracts, a word that is defined at the beginning of the contract is capitalized at all subsequent appearances. It's a helpful convention that lets the reader know whether to check the definition section of the contract.

    E.g. on page 1: "666 Fifth Avenue, New York County, New York State, and all appurtenant easements (the "Property")"

    Page 20: "Title to the Property shall transfer from Seller to Buyer no later than December 31. . ."

    Investors would negotiate, check and recheck the date on page 20. They wouldn't bother reading the definition section, because that's the lawyer's job. They get used to seeing words like Property, Seller, Buyer, etc. capitalized. The style often infects informal communications such as emails and tweets.

    In the examples, "Borders," "Tariffs," and "Barriers" are real estate words that Trump would have seen capitalized in mid-sentence thousand of times.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 6:40 am

    Here's an in-the-wild example I saw posted this morning on the occasion of Memorial Day using a mix of initial capitalization and ALL CAPS: "THANK YOU to all the BRAVE men and women who have Served our country, and to those currently Serving to make each & every day Safe for all of Us!" It's interesting because the emphasized words are not nouns (bracketing whether pronouns are a sort of noun …) but do make sense in context to emphasize. I think the lack of conformity to any sort of approved stylebook conventions gives it a certain vernacular authenticity that underscores the sincerity of the sentiment, although I accept that other readers may find the non-standard orthography more of a distraction that undermines the sense of the message.

  11. DaveK said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 2:21 pm

    @Arthur: Lawyers also seem to capitalize words referring to the court system—is this done for the same reason? ("The Court issued an Order granting the Motion")

  12. arthur said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

    Typically in briefs, Court is capitalized when it means the court that will be ruling on the motion but not when it means some other court. Motion is capitalized when it refers to the motion that is the subject of the brief, Plaintiff is capitalized when it means the plaintiff in the current case, and a few other words are handled similarly. Not everyone follows this convention.

  13. jhholland said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 9:06 am

    It seems that I often see academic disciplines capitalized, even by careful writers.

    "Our Anthropology Department is…" (well, I guess here, this is a proper noun, but:)

    "She plans to double-major in Sociology and Music."

    Comments?

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 30, 2018 @ 1:44 pm

    The tweeted views of the establishment Washington political journalist Timothy Noah, blending several themes already mentioned: "Overcapitalization is Rampant in our Nation's Capital. It's one of the more Pathetic Ways it asserts its Importance. Also, Poorly Educated people (not Naming Names) overcapitalize for Emphasis. And Lawyers do it Constantly for some Reason. I Hate It."

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    June 1, 2018 @ 7:20 am

    jhholland:
    If those are the actual titles of degree courses (or a combined course) that she plans to take, that would be normal. If she merely planned to study those subjects, it would be giving them a Platonic identity.

  16. James Wimberley said,

    June 1, 2018 @ 9:25 am

    John Baker: "So that's just a matter of competing standard stylebooks…"
    But MY stylebook is The Stylebook.

    I wonder what writers in the 1750s would have done with modern word processing software, which allows an unlimited range of font sizes and styles. At one time Word even offered the ultimate typographic horrorshow, a blinking font.

RSS feed for comments on this post