Wilbers: From history came a capital idea for the use of uppercase

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2012 - 7:46 PM

Sometime around 780 Charlemagne was having lunch with his buddy Alcuin. Also known as Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus, Alcuin was a poet, monk and scholar whom Charlemagne had invited to serve in his court so that they could toss out the old (the classical civilization of the Greeks and Romans) and bring in the new (a medieval European civilization).

Well, maybe "tossing out" is a little strong; it was more of a transition combining the Roman past and the present German way of life along with a strong dose of Christianity thrown in, but soon things would be way different.

"I have an idea," said the monk.

"And what, pray tell," said the Frankish emperor, "is your idea, Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus?"

"Please, you can call me Al."

"And you may call me Charlie."

That was the first big change. The second one had to do with the alphabet.

"You know how hard it is to read those big majuscule letters when you run them all together?" said Al.

"Yes," said Charlie, "but they're easy to chisel into stone."

"True, but laborious to write on parchment and difficult to read. How about instead of using all majuscule letters, we mix in some little minuscule ones?"

"But how will we know when to use one or the other?"

"We'll have to make up some rules, such as beginning each new sentence with a majuscule letter."

"Cool," said Charlie.

But from there, things went south, and to this day many writers don't know when to use capital letters and when to use lowercase. Some writers capitalize every word they want to emphasize. Others use all lowercase, hoping their computers will turn the little letters into big ones as needed.

Here are some rules to bring order to the chaos. Capitalize:

•The first word of every sentence.

•A question within a sentence, as in "The question is, Should I capitalize should?"

•The first item in a vertical list or outline (as in this list).

•Proper nouns or names, including days of the week, months and names of languages.

•Principal words, including verbs and final words, in capitalized titles.

•Social and professional titles when they precede a name, but not when they follow, as in "She invited Vice President Smith, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota."

•Titles used in direct address, as in "Please tell me, Professor, if I passed your course."

•Words referring to relatives when they are used in place of a name, but not when they are used descriptively, as in "According to Mother, my father was the handsomest man in the world."

At the end of their lunch, Al said, "I have another idea."

"What's that?" said Charlie.

"Rather than putting pagans to death who refuse to convert to Christianity, let's appeal to their conscience. You can force people to be baptized, but you cannot force them to believe."

"Well, that's a novel thought," said Charlie, "but I think we've done enough for today. Let's talk about it tomorrow."

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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