Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Capital Punishment? Maybe. Capital Letters? Definitely!

Time goes on and things change. In a world of Internet, Blackberries and text messaging, capital letters are increasingly seen as anachronistic and pointless. More and more, people send emails written in all small letters, with neither names nor first words in sentences capitalized any more. To quote our Vice-President: "So?" Why should this matter?

I admit - it bothers me. As a certified Old Guy with many decades of writing etiquette pounded into my being, seeing a caps-less sentence strikes me as kind of ugly and just plain wrong. Maybe that will change with time as the new paradigm becomes more widespread. But before we go on - why this trend anyway?

Probably for two main reasons. First, it's easier and quicker to type without using caps. Second, these new communication technologies are "informalizing" much of our writing, and the no-caps idea is a way of saying "yeah, I'm dialed in to the 21st century".

Fair enough. You can't stop change and writing evolves over time like anything else. Nevertheless, this no-caps idea is mostly a bad thing, and here's why. First of all, the initial premise is flawed, except possibly in the case of text messaging. If you're a competent typist, then you capitalize a letter with one hand while you type it with the other. Not capitalizing words saves what? A second or two at most on a typical 2-3 sentence email, maybe as much as a full minute on a lengthy letter or essay? Anyone who thinks they're saving appreciable time by not capitalizing is either deluding themselves or needs to improve their typing skills. Again - maybe texting is the exception, but otherwise it's hard to see that this is really about saving time or energy. So it's probably more about being cool and following the latest trend.

But there are problems. Capital letters and proper punctuation exist for a reason, after all: to make it easier to follow the writer's meaning. They tell the reader to pause here, emphasize that, new thought coming up, etc. Why is that not as important in emails as in any other type of writing?

Now to me, old guy that I am, writing without capitalizing words is a sign of laziness, or a lack of seriousness or consideration for the reader, or ignorance about the rules of writing - or some combination. But this is not about me. Wouldn't you suppose that at least some of a student's future professors, bosses, important customers and so forth also might not appreciate the informality of caps-free writing? By allowing students to write this way and - worse yet - modeling that same behavior in their own emails, teachers encourage writing that is not going to be appreciated by people in a position to influence young folks' futures.

I know it's largely a matter of informality. I mean, this new writing mode is mostly about short messages sent to a friend, so what's the big deal? Well I don't know that it is a big deal, but I do know that we've always written informal little notes and whatnot over the generations. Yet I don't ever remember not capitalizing someone's name, a state, the beginning of a sentence, etc. So I guess the whole informality idea doesn't make much sense to me.

But now that I think of it - it really IS a big deal. As kids become more and more comfortable with this kind of writing, one imagines that it might cross over into their formal writing. It's like speaking: we all use one type of language with our friends and another kind with a professor, our boss, or the judge when we're fighting that parking ticket. Most of us know how to speak based on the situation and can switch seamlessly. But what about kids who never learn formal English or seldom use it? Their language too often tends to be inappropriate. This same kind of phenomenon is a real risk for young writers today. I'm seeing more and more essays and other formal writing from students lately where first words of sentences and proper names are not capitalized, while some regular nouns ARE capitalized. It seems clear that the rules of formal writing are blurring, and I think a lot of it goes back to the email thing.

(On a related note, according to TIME Magazine's May 12th edition, "64% of U.S. teenagers use informal text-message slang in their written schoolwork, including abbreviations like 'LOL' (38%) and smiley-face emoticons (25%)." Somewhat surprisingly, "56% of teens surveyed consider good writing to be 'essential' later in life." Anybody besides TIME see something wrong with this picture? Or a connection to the no-caps trend?)

You know - maybe we're going back to the 18th century kind of writing, when words were spelled as you wished and were capitalized (or not) seemingly at a whim. And if that's the way it works out - fine. But in the meantime, expecting my name to be capitalized is not a matter of narcissism, as a colleague recently suggested. It's a matter of courtesy, of respect, and of convention, if you will. And pending any justification for not doing so, my expectation is that students will follow the conventions of punctuation and capital letters when writing. Students who do otherwise, knowing this expectation, risk having their messages deleted without a response. As for other teachers, they of course will do as they do, but I respectfully suggest that they reconsider the message they send students with their own capitalization-free writing.

25 comments:

Katya said...

The topic addressed in this essay is something that I have been talked about many times, and I think I can't help but agree with the points made; defending why not using capital letters is more serious that people think. Ignoring the rules that have been taught to us simply for the reason of saving time, or being cool, has begun to grow to the point where people get so used to it they don't even notice they are doing something wrong. Teachers, parents and students alike should work hard to not let people continue forming this bad habit.

Alyssa Bybee said...

I myself never thought it to be a huge deal to leave out something like a comma if I forgot. However when someone isn't putting in something simple and noticeable like a period or capitalizing letters then they are going to look unprofessional and teacher won't take them seriously. And the people who are going to hire them are going to want a person who can write a professional letter or something like it. Therefore I agree with what Katya had said that people should let those people know that it's a bad habit. If this doesn't happen they are just going to be handicapped in the real world.

Joanna said...

I also think this has to do a lot with the new generations. Generation Y (born between 1982-2000) is known for the communications, media, and digital technologies. We were brought up in a way, unappreciative and spoiled. We don’t have to work as hard as the other generations in many things, I have not met anyone of my age that writes formal letters to their friends especially through the mail. If we are unable to write for the particular audience then this just goes to show how we will fit in the work force.

Endo Rosales said...

I couldn't agree any more, that these days, kids put little effort into their grammar. While modern technology like texting plays it's role into affecting grammar, they're some certain circumstances where abbreviations such as "lol" need to be used. Adults should make an effort to teach kids about grammar at an early age, so that may be accustomed to it.

Anonymous said...

Emonye K.
I feel that this was a very interesting topic on how many students do not send messages using coreect punctuation or capital letters. I agree that this is a big deal since messaging in that way can start to become a bad habit.

Nikole Benjamin said...

I found this piece to be an eye opener. I mean, I have a habit of cutting corners when I text but that's only when texting my peers whom I am comfortable with. Although everything stated was true, I believe it's fine to want to use words such as "lol" and "jk" or using slang but it has its limitations. I don't doubt that the more adjusted we become to texting in "21st centurary style", the likely it is that we use it in essays and in formal papers (because I have seen it while peer-editing) but I figure it is mostly based on awarness. Knowing when to be informal and when to be professional. The bottom line, rechecking the accuracy of your work!!

Jaki Emathinger said...

Overall, the matters addressed in this essay have much significance. What you fail to do is truly see eye to eye with my generation. I do not mean to excuse our informal speech. Quite the contrary; it's not acceptable. But the way we learned to type, the way technology has influenced us, has shifted the norm from formal to informal. You blame it on being lazy, and we are, but that's not all there is to it.

Natalie said...

In a sense, how a person informally texts is a personal choice. But eventually this transfers into formal writing. What has education and communication come to when 64% of US teenagers use LOL and emoticon in their schoolwork (TIME Magazine)? Not only does the student look ignorant, they disrespect the teacher! To assume that a college educated instructor want to decipher and LOL is rude and completely devalues the work.

Rebecca said...

The problem that seems to be bothering the author is not whether or not students are using capital letters, but whether or not they can properly assess the situation and identify which register would be most appropriate to use. It is unfortunate that the author failed to identify his real problem and therefore failed to write an essay that properly supported his ideas because he provided irrelevant evidence and statistics.

Jen Dean said...

The use of both capitalization and puntuaction are critical no matter what you are writing. As stated in the blog, it makes it easier for teh reader to follow the writer's meaning. However, younger people tend to leave out these writing compenents due to influences such as television as well as other people in society. But I do believe that many of the people who fail to use punctuation or capital letters in what it is they are writing, know when capitalization and punctation is necessary. But again, in my opinion, it is necessary no matter what.

Nicola Moore said...

I agree with all of the points made in this essay. It isn't just you, Mr. Strebler that this type of writing bothers. I enjoy writing and receiving "snail mail." It is just so much more exciting to open a nice letter than a text message that is so sort that you can barley read. Capitalization helps so much Capital letters and punctuation help a piece of writing become easier to read and understand. I was surprised to find out that texting style language was showing up in a good number of student's papers. In addition to this, I think that it is sad that we are going back to 18th century writing.

Kenden said...

After reading your article, I thought that the idea you mentioned about the evolution of language is the most important. With the advent of a new, informal medium of communication, it is rational to think that a new "dialect" or modification of language will occur, similar to changes in speech patterns with the telephone [saying "Hello", etc.]. However, this should not be carried over into writing where Standard English is expected, just as conversational English would not be used in a formal speech.

Mikayla H said...

I can see the point that you are making with typing, because I always correct people when they speak. If they write it incorrectly in a text I say, “I know what you mean”, but if the say it wrong, I immediately correct them. Sometimes reliance on new technologies can harm my writing abilities. Sometimes I find my self wanting to write u, instead of you, to save time, or lol to make it obvious where I put in a subtle joke. Students still capitalize correctly because its been engraved in our heads from pre-school until now. I don’t know about everyone else, but I don’t like having to go back in spell check and correct all of my mistakes, so I try to get it right the first time. Making sure that you use correct capitalization in your writing may not be hard for you Mr. Strebler, because you only write in capital letters. But as far as typing goes, I can put forth more effort in making sure I use correct grammar and punctuation in my emails.

Sonia Asitimbay said...

Sonia Asitimbay
This essay has many valid points.I do agree, capital letters are extremely important. They are the proper way of writing, and necessary when trying to write any sort of paper such as a letter or a report.To make a point though, it is hard to address this topic just blaming it on laziness, even though you are right, I feel that there are other reasons. The current generation is influenced so much by technology and the newest electronic devices they have for communicating with each other that in some way, capital letters don’t mean as much anymore.

Zachary Z. said...

I never realy think about capital letters when i text but i am alway ready to put caps on my real papers or emails. It kind of suprised me that that many kids get so used to texting that when writeing basic paper they use texting language. I think that its not much of a big deal because even though many kids text i dont usually see a kid mess up on anything important. I agree that it is very important, but for texting not so much. So i think a bad point is that people are texting more and more so the capitals might be used less and less in stuff that maters.

Emily said...

If students had better reading habits, maybe they would have better capitalization skills. If it is taught at a young age, and the child becomes accustomed to it, then later in life they should be able to easily use capitalization. While text message speak is a problem, it's extremely surprising that 64% of students use text slang in written papers. At that point something needs to be done, and while texting language is convenient, it doesn't teach children the habits they need for later in life.

Anthony said...

I admit that I am guilty of this from time to time. Frequently in emails and text messages, I just don’t use capitols. Often not even commas, and on rare occasions I slip into full on text speak using abbreviations that only a few people know. It did start off as a way to save time, when each letter on a key-pad phone required hunting through and pressing a button two to five times for the right letter. Back then the difference between “plz” and “please” was the difference between eight seconds and thirty. but now its just silly and I agree over all, this is a problem. I feel guilty that I contributed to it, but at this point I hope that schools and parents can really drive home how this actually matters.

Nadia said...

The topics addressed in the essay are spot on and relevant. I found the statistic from TIME Magazine to be amusing and at the same time somewhat embarrassing because it is likely that it is my generation the magazine was talking about. I think it is unlikely a student is purposefully not capitalizing words in an effort to be "cool". I think it is a mark of laziness, something that seems to be common in my generation.

Alan Tam said...

This essay mention points that are relevent to the topic and convincing. It's sad that this number of American teenagers use texting-style writing in their formal writing. This shows not only how lazy we are, but how poorly educated we are. It's something that must be changed because it's disrespectful to the readers that one is making the reader to give extra effort to decipher testing style messages and non-use of capital letters.

mayapapaya said...

I think society is becoming more lazy with grammar in general. In present its easy to be lazy with grammar there’s spell check, auto thesaurus and auto correct that doesn’t allow one to really give thought and effort into actually looking up something in a physical dictionary or thesaurus.

Kristen Phung said...

Many disregard proper capitalization and punctuation when sending casual text messages and emails. They don't realize that a simple comma can completely change the meaning of a sentence. I admit, when I am texting my friends, or even my parents, I don't bother putting effort into capitalizing every name, however, when I email a teacher, my student mode switches on. We rely on auto correct and spell check too much, therefore when an error is made, we don't go back to correct it because we know the computer will do it for us.

FANTASTIC_iam said...

When I am texting or doing something on the internet, I really do not like to capitalize. However, I do agree with the capitalizing thing being a problem because I have trouble just trying to not write like I am texting. And that includes shortening words and what not.
Eunice Reed

Unknown said...

Reading this article three years after it was written, I can see where there was serious concern. At thirteen I would have thought you were being silly and didn’t know what you were talking about, but now I see how this was a problem. Since this was written two major things happened: Facebook and IPhones. Facebook (and other social networking sites) and the IPhone (and other smartphones) have a few things in common. The first is a form of spell check, on the IPhone it is automatic, this stops a lot of bad grammar simply by making it easier to type properly than to mince your sentences. The other is a removal of emoticons (those little colored smiley faces that were all the rage) because of this they faded out of fashion and we needed to convey a lot more with only words. The last major factor was a turn away from face to face conversation. Because of this words are evaluated no one hesitates to point out the wrong “there” or “your” and capitals and punctuation are under the same scrutiny.

Joanna Garcia said...

It is coherent to say people have been informalizing their writing, because people want to follow the latest trends. After all a text message is only 160 characters, and I feel people see it as if they were writing a note to someone, a note is usually informal. When you mix the note or text message informality with emails, letters, or even worse essays, is when people become frustrated. Like you mention lack of seriousness or consideration for the reader. Very few times is there someone that was never taught basics rules of grammar, so it is the first choice lack of seriousness

Elizabeth Kenyon said...

The issue is definitely a concern that is valid. When I was in middle school, I had a teacher who wouldn't answer our emails if she felt that they were written impolitely then her next lesson of the day would be how to write an email to your teacher. Today's students were raised in the technology era where texting evolved into what it is today. I don't know if my writing has been affected by the slang used in text messages but it doesn't surprise me that others would use such language in formal essays.