The Digital Epidemic of Random Midsentence Capitalization

The alphabet. See, we have options!

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A recent (excellent) piece on Sean Hannity’s integrity (LOL) that ran on Slate contained the following sentences: “Whether or not Hannity is a journalist, he should certainly be honest with viewers, which he has not been. But the mini-scandal seemed to be fueled by a wish for Hannity to comport himself according to the abstemious norms of Serious Journalism.”

There—do you see it? Grab your binoculars and don’t scare it away. It’s the Capitalization for Emphasis, resplendent in the wild. The writer used an arch technique to underscore the perceived seriousness of Serious Journalism. Nothing is More Serious than judicious uppercase letters, which strike a stately balance between the conversational flow of normal prose and SHOUTING FOR YOUR LIFE.

Actually, though, the specific tone served by Emphatic Capitalization is largely bloggy and informal—more a send-up of others’ pretensions than a good-faith attempt to hallow your chosen noun. Women prove more likely to wear plaid jorts when they’re ovulating “because Science” (typed with a dismissive, feminist eye-roll). I have chosen to enjoy this bag of Doritos with my salad at lunch because, heh, the Chips Don’t Lie. To beleaguered copy editors chasing down each too-clever cap and trying to reason it into lowercase, the practice has blossomed into a bête noir. “I’m often like, I see what you’re trying to do there, and I don’t think you’ve earned it,” said one Slate copy editor (who immediately afterward went into a witness protection program, because the tongue-in-cheek spotlighting method is so widespread on the web). Another editor at an unnamed magazine falsely informs her writers that the publication’s stylebook expressly forbids ungrammatical caps—sticking it to Big Majuscule.

Where does the Emphatic Capitalization come from? Certainly, it wasn’t always ironic, just as many of the internet’s puckish fillips originated in solemn, graceful rhetorical techniques. (In some ways, the built-in colloquial register of places like Twitter automatically ironizes loftier moves, like hyperbole and aposiopesis.) King James’ Bible placed its holiest nouns—God, but also Day, Heart, Time, and Name—in uppercase. In 1611, “reverential capitalization” reflected the lack of standardization in English punctuation, which allowed individual writers to capitalize the terms they deemed most important.

This continued into the 18th century, when authors like Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Thomas Jefferson often used capital letters to harken back to a heroic past. Perhaps they were drawing on the tradition of allegory, which grandly imagined “Liberty” as a woman waving a torch, or “Death” as a peaked figure shrouded in mist. At any rate, the Enlightenment and then the Victorian era, both ages of billowy abstractions and bright ideals, saw a fair amount of highfalutin typography. Consider Emily Dickinson (“Futile—the winds—to a Heart in port –”) or even, a little later, A. A. Milne. (“He was a Bear of Very Little Brain.”)

Point is, emphatic caps used to be all over the place. Some people cite the German language convention of capitalizing nouns as another contributing factor. In our contemporary moment, maybe we’ve just read enough whimsical teenaged dialogue by the YA author John Green to develop compassion for the neglected “words in the middle” of the sentence.

Or here’s a theory: It’s all Twitter’s fault. Twitter does not allow users to type in boldface or italics. Accordingly, we have to sleuth out other ways to pack our posts with emphasis.  We SHOUT or we turn to Inappropriate Title Casing or we do that stupid clapping thing. And then, those compensatory norms trickle into our non-Twitter communications, and our sentences grow into Spiky Forests of Surprise Capitalization.

This compromise evokes the long-deplored tactic of presenting book and movie titles in all caps. Because typewriters couldn’t deliver italics and underlining entailed going back over the words, press monkeys under time pressure often just distinguished works of art from the rest of the sentence via uppercase letters. Now those capitals are status quo normal in emails, Twitter posts, and certain publications. At least the random emphatic majuscules on blogs are uncommon enough to make a rhetorical impression, though perhaps one not quite worthy of Serious Journalism.