The questioned value of capital letters

Fun fact: People remember 80% of what they see versus only 20% of what they read.


it is so conventional to see a sentence begin with a capital letter that it is only noticed when one isn’t. Capitalization is so much a part of current English orthography that most writing applications (Word, Google Docs, and iMessages, among others), autocorrect for it by default.

Yet, the use of capitals has waxed and waned across the history of the English language. In the 17th century, it was commonly accepted to capitalize titles (yes, Sir!) and important or personified nouns (as Time would tell). This eventually extended to the names of fields of knowledge (you may ask a professor of History to confirm). By the late 18th century, grammarians felt that capitalization was becoming excessive and diluted the distinction of words that deserved it. What followed was a “dramatic reduction,” according to David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, in what was considered caps-worthy.

Of course, capitals remain widely used today. Aside from starting sentences, we use them in abbreviating our names, victimizing trees with our initials and embroidering them on towels and backpacks—only a few people have chosen to write their names otherwise, like poet e.e. cummings and singer k.d. lang. We use them to suggest major and minor keys in musical notation. We use them as dropcaps (sometimes very ornate ones) to lead off chapters, a centuries-old practice. We use them in acronyms, pronouncing each letter for some and pronouncing others as words (consider that the next time you enter your PIN at an ATM). We capitalize words to confer importance or poke fun at it (Winnie-the-Pooh is “a Bear of Very Little Brain”), and we select particular letters to be capitalized, as you’ll see if you buy an iPhone on eBay (a practice called CamelCase).

Some words, like laser (originally an acronym for “light amplification stimulated emission radiation”) and scuba (“self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”), shed their caps as they become accepted into everyday language. Other words take on different meanings when capitalized (if you live on Earth, you can grow potatoes in earth). And, of course, we sometimes use all caps to express a louder volume of communication (WHAT?).

So, without question, capital letters have been useful. But are they necessary?

Several graphic designers have considered this question, and with genuinely practical aims at heart. Two notable ones are Herbert Bayer and Bradbury Thompson, who presented fully developed alternatives to the upper and lower case system we have used for over five hundred years. Each approached the question with different priorities in mind and ultimately offered different solutions.

Bayer began designing a single-case, sans serif alphabet, Universal, in 1923 while finishing his studies at the Bauhaus. He completed the alphabet in 1925, the year he was appointed master of the printing and advertising workshop at the school, but continued to revise the alphabet for several more years.

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Herbert Bayer’s Universal typeface (Index Grafik)

Universal, designed to reflect the values of the Bauhaus, conveyed clarity, mechanical precision, economy, and efficiency through its forms of perfect circles and straight horizontal and vertical lines. These practical values were so central to the school that the school stationery carried these lines (translated from German): “we write everything in lowercase, as this saves us time, why have two alphabets for only one word […]? why write in capital letters when one does not speak in capital letters?” By 1927, this was condensed to the German equivalent of: “we write everything small, because we save time.”

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Bauhaus stationery, designed by Herbert Bayer. The school’s rationale for small letters only writing is noted at the bottom (Design-Is-Fine.org)

With Bayer at the helm of print and advertising activities at the Bauhaus, Universal was soon used on all of the school’s publications. But Bayer had bigger dreams for his alphabet—he hoped (rather overtly, with its name) that this single-case, formally simple style of writing could be adopted internationally and help to unify war-torn nations.

Ironically, his work turned out to be politically divisive, and it wasn’t picked up by a type foundry. German conservatives attacked Bayer’s work as being thoroughly “un-German.” First, because traditional German documents used blackletter typefaces, Bayer’s sans serif clearly flouted national traditions. Second, because Bayer based Universal on roman figures, it was criticized as being supportive of France, Germany’s long-standing enemy. But perhaps the loudest argument was that it disrespected the German language by uncapitalizing nouns (in German, nouns are capitalized). As Fascism spread across Germany in the 1930s, Universal (like many other typographic innovations from the Bauhaus) was unable to escape political scrutiny and interpretation.

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Nazi propaganda posters were often designed in Blackletter type, with nouns capitalized in German. Images from Wired (left) and Renegade Tribune (right)

The goal of simplifying the alphabet resonated years later in the U.S. with Bradbury Thompson, then working in New York. But rather than hoping to unify international relations or represent the ideals of an influential school, Bradbury Thompson was more concerned about readability and literacy. Thompson agreed with the Bauhaus tradition that having two cases was less efficient, but he felt that doing away with capitals compromised readability because the starts of sentences and proper nouns were no longer obvious.

The first of Thompson’s explorations in alternative ways to indicate capitalization was his Monalphabet experiments. In Westvaco Inspirations 152, a promotional magazine issued in 1945 by the Westvaco Paper Corporation, Thompson featured seven spreads with paragraphs set in seven different styles: all lowercase, all uppercase, standard lowercase and uppercase, lowercase with bullets to mark the start of sentences, lowercase with would-be capitals underlined, lowercase with would-be capitals bolded, and lowercase with would-be capitals larger.capital letters

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Spreads from Westvaco Inspirations, designed by Bradbury Thompson, showing sentences with would-be capitals set in bold lowercase (top) and set larger (bottom) (Thinking Form)

As Thompson writes in his monograph, The Art of Graphic Design, “Although many typographic critics today may view the Monalphabet experiment as a futile waste of time, it is an idea that remains to be tested and played with…” His design of these spreads reflects this sentiment; the text blocks are substantial enough for a reader to sample how each style influenced their reading, and the spreads are playfully illustrated. Simple, clean Futura was used throughout.

Thompson’s second alphabet project was unveiled in 1950, in Westvaco Inspirations 180. This time it was a typeface, Alphabet 26, which mixed upper and lowercase letters in one system. After watching his son struggle with reading a sentence with “Run” but not with “run,” Thompson reasoned that although having two separate alphabets made reading more difficult to learn, some letters were more legible in uppercase than in lowercase when placed next to other letters, such as R.

So for the nineteen letters that have different upper and lowercase forms, Thompson carefully selected fifteen to take their uppercase forms only and four to take their lowercase forms only. Combined with the remaining seven letters that have the same upper and lowercase forms, this mixed-case alphabet system would make learning to read easier and more efficient. Would-be capitals would simply have the letters larger.

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Bradbury Thompson’s Alphabet 26 typeface (American Institute of Graphic Arts)

Anticipating psychological and social resistance towards these suggestions, Thompson tried to ease readers into the idea by setting Alphabet 26 in Baskerville, though it was applicable to all type families. To Thompson, Baskerville seemed to strike the right balance between being sufficiently familiar and traditional without being too dated. And, conveniently for Thompson’s design process, the main body letters and small cap letters of Baskerville aligned well.

Obviously, despite their efforts, neither Bayer nor Thompson has overthrown our two-case alphabet system. Each of their suggested alphabets had limitations that typographers were quick to point out, like legibility at small scales. But perhaps more than any of those detailed objections, the preexisting prevalence of capital letters and our fluency in recognizing them have biased us against trying to integrate these alternatives into our daily lives.

Part of this, perhaps, is that fluent writers and readers, those who create and consume capital letters, don’t perceive a burden with the two-case system. Trying a single-case system would require us to re-learn a system deeply ingrained in our habits, and without seeing a substantial benefit (and having everyone else join in), the effort may seem rather unworthy of the time.

But in a sense, going single-case also means renouncing the enduring cultural significance of certain capital letters: Would Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter be as shameful if it looked like an “a” instead of an “A”? Would we feel as deflated to see an “f” on a report card rather than an “F”? Would a film rated “r” seem potentially less disturbing than one rated “R”? Would we ever be able to dance to the YMCA song again?

The capital letter is here to stay. It may be theoretically dispensable, but it is culturally indispensable.


One thought on “The questioned value of capital letters

  1. LauraCrawford

    Thank you for an excellent article! And just led by my interest on the uppercase/lowercase subject, what do you think of Trump’s use of uppercase? Political pundits have commented on his use of all-caps, like in his “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN” tweet to Iran, but not on his uneven use of caps for certain nouns.

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