Please Don’t Capitalize Every Single Word


"What's important?" by Valerie Everett (used under a CC-BY-SA license).

Too often I see the dreaded Important Noun. I didn’t notice this effect until, when I started with WebFaction, nobody referred to the custom control panel as the Control Panel and no one insisted that I do that in the documentation. It’s not the Holy Grail, I was told. It makes perfect sense of course—what’s so proper about a control panel?—but after seeing so many products insist that their Ordinary Thing was Special, I assumed it was standard practice.

Consider an example from a Stack Overflow question I answered a while back, How should important terms be emphasized in documentation? (emphasis mine):

Software will often introduce and formalize concepts that may have ambiguous definitions in the real world. For example, in an attendance tracking system, an Occurrence refers to an Excused Absence, an Unexcused Absence, or a Tardy.

Traditionally, capitalization is a fun thing reserved to help distinguish the first character in a sentence or for the dignity of proper nouns. Why is It showing Up every Other word In technical Documentation?

Sometimes a phrase is just a phrase, even though its referring to something important to the author. With the exception of “Occurrence,” I don’t think those nouns are particularly proper. “Excused absence” and “approval form” are descriptive as ordinary noun phrases; if I came across these in their capitalized form, I think I’d wonder if they’re oblique references or outright euphemisms.

“Occurrence” is problematic, however. Usually, occurrence means “something that occurs,” which is vague to the point of meaninglessness. In this case, the author has the opportunity to be much more descriptive without repurposing an existing word. Which points to the problem rather squarely: each observed case of the Capitalization syndrome represents a missed opportunity. Rather than being more descriptive within the current lexicon, the author decides that no existing words will do. The author misappropriates an existing word and lets everyone know how special this “new” word is with the liberal application of Capital Letters.

Of course, that’s not to say I’m against proper nouns. I’m all for giving things distinctive names. Go nuts with CamelCase, even. I don’t care. But lay off my ordinary nouns. Can’t I just be tardy without being Tardy?

One thought on “Please Don’t Capitalize Every Single Word

  1. Emily will like this post as she frequently yells at me for capitalizing Things that don’t need to be capitalized in my Papers about Libraries. (that was on purpose)

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