OF CAPITAL IMPORTANCE
why can’t people write properly anymore?
Why can’t kids spell? Leila Wildsmith wags her teacher’s finger at the media. It worries her because if we don’t understand language, we don’t really understand ourselves.
As an English teacher, one of my pet-hates is the use of lower case letters instead of capitals. In 30 of my pupils’ books, I will see an average of 29 that are missing capital letters – at the start of sentences, for the date – even for a child’s own name. It seems as if they are not familiar with the concept of capital letters at all. In a world that is increasingly doing away with capitalisation, can we really blame them? Is culture, and specifically the media, responsible for this increasing illiteracy? In previous years, the decrease in ‘correct’ (or standard) spellings and grammar was blamed on the increased use of texting and Instant Messaging. A relaxed style of communicating, prompted by limited text message length (historically 160 characters) seemed to encourage a more informal style of language. However, today’s smart phones (which many of us now own) have no such message length restriction and will automatically correct both spellings and grammar, ensuring that punctuation marks (especially capital letters), are in the right places. Perhaps instead of blaming mobile phones, we should look to the powerful force of the media, who seem to be doing away with capital letters with abandon. The British television channel ITV is one such culprit: they have recently overhauled their brand identity, replacing their familiar capitalised logo with a lower case, curvy alternative. The channel describes its new logo as “a warm, bold design based on a formalised version of human handwriting”. This flowing, curvy, new design may well be based on handwriting , but as the name of a brand (and acronym), it ought to be capitalised. ( You can read about the decision behind the rebrand here). Branding that tries to replicate handwriting, and does away with linguistic conventions, raises the interesting question of language and influence. Just like the age-old question of the chicken and the egg, linguists have argued for a long time over which is more influential: language or culture? The words we use may very well shape how we see the world. One fascinating point of view is that the words we choose to represent certain things directly affect our perceptions. Known as ‘ Linguistic Determinism’, it is considered the root of the argument for Political Correctness, in which language (along with attitudes, beliefs and policies), is amended to minimise offence in relation to gender, age, race, sexuality, belief etc. For example, masculine labels such as ‘fireman’ or ‘actress’ are replaced by the gender neutral ‘firefighter’ and ‘actor’. The interdependent relationship between language and cultural thought has long been debated, but Lera Borododitsky writes in her article ‘Lost in Translation’: “All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality… If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world.” ( You can read the article in full here.) Whilst language in general may shape how we construct reality, does the misuse of capitals really affect our thinking that much? Although
students’ writing is not technically ‘ correct’ without capital letters, I can still understand it. If our culture is doing away with capital letters, perhaps now is it time for us to shed them too? Facebook and Twitter are two further examples of the interesting link between cultural shifts and language. Despite being proper nouns, neither use a capital to represent their name as it appears in company logos. Again, we can ask: does this reflect a shift in modern culture to omit capitals, or does the omission of capitals on such popular sites encourage others to do the same? Many say that language really does reflect the changes that are occurring in culture already. We see this in the addition of new words popularised by TV programmes, such as ’Amazeballs’ and ’Bridezilla’, to online dictionaries (read about this here). Perhaps the bigger issue is not the use or misuse of standard spellings and grammar, but the messages that are conveyed by inaccurate use. Yes, writing can still be understood without capital letters (I could have written this entire article without capitals; then again, my computer would make every effort to correct them for me), but what subconscious messages would I have conveyed about myself, or the magazine? That I wasn’t well educated? On a deeper level, inaccurate punctuation can lead us to construct an opinion, not just about a person’s literacy skills, but about their beliefs and values. If I didn’t use capitals, you might think me lazy, or that I didn’t care about my article or the magazine. You might not think much of the editorial staff who allowed this lack of capitalisation. At worst, you might doubt the validity of what we have to say. I doubt you would have thought me ‘cool’ or ‘forward-thinking’. In such a public, professional setting as a digital magazine, there is an expectation that the language used is formal. To follow this line of thought to one extreme, could we perhaps say that there is a direct correlation between the lack of capitalisation of proper nouns and the lack of respect in our society today? If I do not use correct grammar, my students may very well see me in a different light. When I go to see doctor Jones instead of Doctor Jones when I am ill, will I still trust his or her judgment? If I don’t use a capital letter for your name, will you still feel that I value and respect you? Perhaps most importantly the language we use – and specifically the lack of capitals – affects our thoughts about other people and our thoughts about ourselves. If I see myself (and represent myself) as ’i’ and not ‘I’, then I may not appreciate my own significance and importance. Instead, I undermine my own worth and encourage others to do the same. Perhaps our use of capitals really is of capital importance.