I was recently working on an online ad for a client through one of our advertising partners. I was working directly with the client, but I had no real interaction with them. The ad was going along fine when all of the sudden the client asked me to put all of her copy in "all caps." I was horrified! The thought of capitalizing all of the copy in a small ad caused Kristen and me to rant and rave about the nonsense of it all. "How could she possibly think this is a good idea!?" As it turns out, she didn't. She wanted me to capitalize the word all in her copy. "Oh, well, that's OK." At my age, I never let a good rant goto waste, so I decided to make that my next blog topic. I hope you enjoy.
A Little History
The History of capital (or upper) and lowercase letters goes all the way back to the 3rd century when all the letters in the Latin and Greek were in uncial (or large) letters. The minuscule (or small) letters were introduced over time around the 9th century as paper moved away from the rough papyrus more toward the smooth parchment of the day. The lowercase letters were more rounded, showed more distinction and flowed more easily from one to the other. Soon the uncial letters were used more for emphasis than anything else.
Today our English has a modern standard for the use of capital letters. It's pretty well accepted that capital letters begin sentences, proper nouns and titles (and abbreviations). Some people still capitalize an entire word for emphasis, but it is not grammatically correct to do so. So, when (if at all) is it OK to break from this communicative standard?
The Negatives of All Caps
It Is More Difficult to Read a Word in All Caps
That's right. It makes it more difficult to communicate a word when it is in all caps; It does not make it easier. This is the case for two main reasons.
- Capital letters look more similar than lower case letters. They all have the same relative height. Most of them have the same relative width. They even tend to have the same blocky shape. Think of the old scoreboards or digital alarm clocks. They had only 7 possible lines to draw, yet they could present almost every capital letter but only a hand full of lowercase letters.
- Why does any of that matter? Well, we tend to read the tops of words. I've mentioned this before, but it is worth repeating. When we read we more or less trace the topography of the word with our eyes. We see the letters move up and down, slant and curve, cross and dot. This works well for the varied lowercase letters but not for the blocky capital ones. Consider this difference here:
CAN YOU READ THIS BETTER?
Can you read this better?
All Caps Actually De-emphasizes What's Important
If you are putting something in all caps, it's likely because you are wanting to put an emphasis on it. This is usually counter productive. When everything is all capitalized it all looks the same. In order to emphasize something it needs to stand out—it needs to be different. There are usually better ways of emphasizing things. Consider the following:
- Repeating (I'll say that again) Repeating
All Caps Is Pretty Overbearing
Remember that people have a reservoir of goodwill that can be depleted by anything, and when you type in all caps, it kind of feels to the reader like you are shouting at them. In most contexts it is rude to shout. It's probably not something you want to do to your clients or potential clients. We can hear you.
When Should You Use All Caps
When faced with the questions like this, we should always remember the teleology. Think through what you are trying to accomplish. What is the purpose? Make sure the strengths line up with the goals.
If you are going for a unified look, all caps might just be for you. Website navigation is often a great place to utilize a more uniform look. You don't want one area emphasized over the other, and you do want it to appear balanced even though the words themselves vary greatly.
Using all caps can be overbearing, but sometimes you really do want to just shout at people. Sometimes you need a way to communicate the irksomeness behind what you are saying in a way that is beyond bold. In these times all caps are fine, but they should be rare ... or you should seek anger management classes.
I hesitate to say this, but every now and then a single word in all caps can actually emphasize a word. This only works when it's done in moderation. Again, if everything is capitalized, nothing is emphasized. The original illustration is a great example. The ad was for a real estate company that does it all. They do residential, commercial, hunting, rental—you name it! They want you to know that you can contact them "For all your Real Estate needs." But, that doesn't really point out that they actually do it all—it's just a clever saying. Note the difference when they changed it to "For ALL your Real Estate needs." See?
So, all caps should be avoided when it does not support your goal but when used in moderation, can be helpful to communicate what you are trying to say.