Should We Capitalize All Our Nouns?

In German every noun gets capitalized. Should we be doing that in English too?

For example, the German for “The cat walks through the door” is Die Katze geht durch die Tür. Cat and door are both common rather than proper nouns, so neither is capitalized in English, but in German they both are. English, like Danish, formerly capitalized the way German does. For example, consider the following passage from Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1717):

Motion is much more apt to be lost than got, and is always upon the Decay.  For Bodies which are either absolutely hard, or so soft as to be void of Elasticity, will not rebound from one another. Impenetrability makes them only stop. If two equal Bodies meet directly in vacuo, they will by the Laws of Motion stop where they meet, and lose all their Motion, and remain in rest, unless they be elastick, and receive new Motion from their Spring.

As you can see, the capitalization is not 100% consistent. The Latin noun vacuum, found in the phrase “in vacuo,” is not capitalized, and neither is the English noun rest, for no apparent reason. Of course, the man was a scientist, not a stylist, so perhaps we should cut him some slack.

To a modern English speaker, this kind of seemingly random capitalization is seen as a marker of old-timey English. In fact, not only is it not random, it’s tied to a specific time period: the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In an older work like the Canterbury Tales (late 14th century) the capitalization is nearly as modern as the spelling is archaic. For more on why this trend in capitalization may have begun and ended, see this Ask Metafilter thread.

Of course, now that we’ve switched to our current system of proper-noun capitalization (which is something of a compromise between the German and Romance systems) it would be a huge hassle to switch back to all-noun capitalization. To be clear, I am not proposing that. Nor am I proposing that German switch to our system. As an idle question, though, I want to figure out which system is better.

First, what are the advantages of all-noun capitalization?

  • It can eliminate ambiguity. This is particularly true in English, where it’s not uncommon for a verb and a noun to have the same spelling (affect, bother, control, defect, engineer, etc.). One place this ambiguity can cause problems is in crash blossoms, newspaper headlines whose intended interpretations are unclear because of syntactic ambiguity. (There is a blog devoted to them, although its standards are not high.) Recently, for example, I saw the headline “GOP Waivers Might Rule” in the print edition of the Capitol Hill paper Roll Call. The last three words there could be either verbs or nouns, and it takes a few seconds at least before the reader can identify their roles in this headline. In German, there would be no ambiguity; “Might Rule,” the actual verb phrase here, would be lowercase, and “Waivers,” the noun, would stay uppercase. (In German, and in our hypothetical all-noun capitalization English, headlines are capitalized the same way as normal sentences.)
  • All-noun capitalization is also much simpler than proper-noun capitalization, especially as the latter is practiced in English. Capitalizing only proper nouns, titles, and the first word in a sentence may seem simple, but there are enough complications—what counts as a title? which words in a title do you capitalize, exactly? when a proper noun becomes genericized, like xerox or teleprompter, do you still capitalize it? in a rapid series of questions like this one, must each initial letter be capitalized?—that only highly educated and conscientious Anglophones can manage to write for long without slipping up. We regard it as a fact of life that comments on websites, for example, are generally misspelled, mispunctuated, and miscapitalized, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In languages with highly phonetic spelling, like some dialects of Spanish, spelling mistakes are rarer by several orders of magnitude. Many ancient languages, like Sanskrit and Classical Chinese, didn’t use any punctuation and therefore admitted of no mistakes. And in languages like German with simple capitalization rules, even children can manage to follow them without much difficulty. When orthographic conventions are simpler, less time and effort is needed to master them and differences in education and class are less apparent in writing, which may tend to promote equality and dispel prejudice.

But then, proper-noun capitalization has its advantages too:

  • It’s useful to be able to distinguish common nouns from proper nouns. If I live near London, for example, and write that I’m going to the city, that’s very different from writing that I’m going to the City. I couldn’t say off the top of my head whether this kind of disambiguation is more or less useful than the crash blossom disambiguation of all-noun capitalization.
  • Languages with diacritics (accent marks) sometimes omit them on capital letters, although sometimes they don’t. The Academie Française, for example, holds that even uppercase letters should have accent marks when appropriate, but in some casual French writing, as well as in Francophone Switzerland and Quebec, capital letters stand unaccented. Some non-American keyboards have keys for lowercase accented characters but not uppercase accented characters. Omitting the diacritics can make a big difference in meaning, as the examples halfway down this French Wikipedia page show; in at least one case, the lack of diacritics actually renders a phrase indistinguishable from its exact opposite. The less capitalization a language calls for, then, the less ambiguity will result from diacritic loss. This point does not apply to English, however.
  • Selective capitalization is more useful as a channel of meaning in a proper-noun capitalization language. If I want to emphasize that I am Very Serious about something, I can do that in all-noun capitalization too, since neither word I’m selectively capitalizing is a noun. But if I want to talk about someone having Principles and Values, with the selective capitalization conveying a somewhat mocking tone, this subtlety would be lost in an all-noun capitalization language.
  • Capital letters usually use slightly more ink when printed, which ultimately runs into money. Proper-noun capitalization uses fewer capital letters than all-noun capitalization, so it’s cheaper in the long run. This point does not apply to text on computer screens, as pixels are not scarce.
  • When using a keyboard, it takes slightly more effort to type a capital letter, especially on a cell phone or for people who don’t have full use of both hands. This is both a practical and a moral consideration, since all-noun capitalization places more of a burden on the disabled.
  • Proper-noun capitalization is more widely used than all-noun capitalization (which, as far as I know, is restricted to German and Luxembourgish), so a proper-noun capitalization language will tend to be easier for speakers of other languages to learn. This point does not apply to the abstract question of which system is inherently better, but it does apply to the practical question of which system is better in the context of the real world.

Adding up all the advantages and disadvantages in terms of disambiguation, practicality, stylistic tools, and social justice, it looks like proper-noun capitalization is the superior system, although I would not call the evidence presented here entirely conclusive.

Of course, languages do not generally adopt systems of capitalization out of purely rational concerns (with the possible exception of the 1948 Danish spelling reform). German, for example, may have adopted its all-noun capitalization system in part because of prevalent ideas about the central importance of nouns in language. If you asked a pre-20th century philosopher what language was, he (it would be a he) would likely phrase his answer in terms of “naming.” Pre-modern theories of the origin of language usually posit nouns as the first words. The Sun Language Theory, though it dates from the 1930s, is typical; it holds that language began when man looked up at the sun and, overwhelmed by his feelings, named it by saying “Ag,” a syllable from which all other words are derived. (Whether that primordial “Ag” was capitalized or not is unclear.)

The origins of language are still obscure and controversial, of course, and I don’t mean to imply that nouns weren’t (or were) the first part of speech. As for their importance in a language, that varies; Jorge Luis Borges, in his famous story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” imagines languages that use only verbs or adjectives instead of nouns, so that instead of The moon rose above the water you’d say something that would translate literally as Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned. I don’t know of any such languages in the real world, but different languages do distribute semantic work differently among different parts of speech. For example, take the sentence It’s raining. In Romance, Germanic, and Baltic languages, the (pro)noun does very little work and sometimes doesn’t appear at all, while the verb carries essentially all of the semantic load. In some East Slavic languages, on the other hand, the sentence looks something like Идет дождь (Idjot dozhd’, literally, The rain goes), with the noun carrying essentially all of the semantic load and the verb mostly hanging around for appearance’s sake.

The noun doesn’t have to be the main unit of language, then, but the Germans who first standardized their orthography didn’t know that. Perhaps that played a role in their system of capitalization—I don’t know for sure. But what’s done is done, and even if our proper-noun capitalization is in fact superior, all that justifies is a mild sense of superiority in countries outside of Germany and Luxembourg.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.

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2 Responses to “Should We Capitalize All Our Nouns?”

  1. Quote:
    “All-noun capitalization is also much simpler than proper-noun capitalization”
    “with simple capitalization rules, even children can manage to follow them without much difficulty”

    This is horribly wrong (if applied to German), especially the last sentence. Capitalization rules are not that simple in German.
    Nominalized verbs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nominalization; German “Substantivierung”/”substantiviertes Verb”) have to be capitalized as well – and from my experience it takes years till most children apply these rules properly, and some will never apply them.

    However, when Germans learn English, they have (from my perception) much less difficulty with capitalization, you learn a few simple rules and that’s it.

    To be clear, capitalization of nominalized verbs isn’t that difficult or hard to understand (from my point of view), but experience has shown me that for many children this is not the case.

    (And sorry for all my English mistakes :P)

  2. My prediction: In the next few decades, capitalization may get lost anyway (even in German) – “internet language” will become standard language, and a lot of people have abandoned capital letters completely in text messages, on twitter, etc., even at the beginning of a sentence. We will get used to it.

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