The GLV Writing Tips is a continuing series of practical information about the art of writing for the internet today. It is not, nor will it ever be, a finished product, and readers are advised to ask questions and offer opinions in the comments section, but continue to be guided by the standards that the GLVWT are designed to promote.
This edition of GLV Writing Tips will cover the question of when to capitalize initial lower case letters in the names of companies, products, and people with ego problems. Many publications and their editors are puzzled by the problems posed by proper nouns that have incorporated a lower case initial letter into corporate or product names. The range of opinions runs the gamut from an obsessive obedience to the letter of the grammatical law that first letter of a name is always capitalized, all the way to the all-encompassing, “Whatever works for you, baby,” otherwise known as the 1970s laissez faire school of editing. Here, briefly, are the facts of the matter.
While most news organizations do not trust Wikipedia because of its “crowd-editing” format, there is one section that is reasonably reliable because no one gets excited enough about grammar to go in and change what Wikipedia has to say about the subject…and, as it happens, Wikipedia has one of the best and most easily accessible grammar reference materials. However, they are not always right, either.
Wikipedia, in this case, say that if a company or product name begins with a lower case letter, then it should always be written with a lower case initial letter UNLESS the the word is the first word in a headline or a sentence……..but Wikipedia does not always follow its own advice. If you search for the Wikipedia article on the iPhone, you will find that its article about the iPhone has the lower case initial “i” in the headline, and in the first word of the lead sentence, so this must be a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.”
There is a second body of opinion, however, that hold with the idea that if the corporate or product name begins with a lower case letter, then it should always begin with a lower case letter, even if the name is the first first word in a headline or a sentence. The popular c|net website (which itself has a corporate name in all lower case letters), routinely publishes articles about Apple products with the lower case initial “i” for products such as the iPhone, iPad, iStick, and everything else Apple makes that starts off with the initial letter “i.”
Other instances of lower case first initials include, of course, eBay which, please take note, is NEVER spelled with a hyphen between the “e” and the “bay.” There are literally hundreds of other examples, none of which are coming to mind at the moment….but never mind that. What is important here is that there are a lot of discrepancies in which people who worry about grammar and the corruption of the language all agree that it is wrong to start a headline or a sentence with a lower case initial letter…but people who actually use words to make a living seem unified in the belief that a company or a product deserves to be referred to by it actual name.
There are some other examples of special cases in which the usual rules just do not apply. The correct spelling of the word Yahoo!, for example, should always include the exclamation point because the exclamation point is part of the company’s name. (A check of the records shows that it is printed that way on the company’s articles of incorporation.)
When it comes right down to it, the entities that own the trademarks control how those trademarks appear and, in every case we examined. whenever a company name or product name begins with a lower case letter, it always begins with a lower case letter regardless of where the word is placed in the sentence. As a general rule in grammar, usage determines the rules and, in this case, while the grammarians may squawk, with some justification, the fact remains that you can begin headlines and sentences with lower case letters.
Let us now remove the wiggle room. On the basis of this edition of GLV Writing Tips,the names of companies, products, and even individuals who spell their names with lower case initial letters (r.d. lang) will always be written in that manner, even on headlines and at the beginnings of sentences….BUT (Come on, you knew this was coming, right?): there is almost always a way to avoid this from happening by simply restructuring headlines and sentences so that the name with the lower case initial letter is just not the first word in the headline or the sentence.
One cannot leave this subject with raising the question, “What’s so important about capitalizing words in the first place?” After all, capitalization never changes the meaning of a word, does it? Well, yes, actually, sometimes it does. DOA means “dead on arrival” while D’Oa is the name of a once-popular classical musical group from the 1970s. The capitalization of acronyms alerts us to the fact that the acronym is, in fact, an acronym, which is especially important when the acronym is written without intervening periods. The practice of capitalizing proper nouns stems from the Romans, whose Latin has a special alphabet of ornate upper case letters, called uncial that were used to adorn public documents referring to famous or wealthy people. Later on, printers took to using large, ornate uncial at the beginning of each page to illustrate the document so that, gradually, the process of capitalizing proper names became recognized as a form of due deference.
One man, in particular, championed capitalization. The plays of William Shakespeare are characterized by a strict obedience to the rule of capitalizing names, partly to help the actors to follow their scrips and find their characters in the lines. Before Shakespeare, capitalization was indifferently and inconsistently used in English, and English remains the only language that makes extensive use of capitalization in its printed works. (No one seems to notice this because no one reads manuscripts from before Shakespeare’s time and, when they do, they read them in modern editions that have been thoroughly capitalized.)
Then there is the curious case of the poet E. E. Cummings, who wrote many of his experimental poems in unpunctuated lower case letters and who’s name, for some obscure reason, is often written in all lower case letters as e.e. cummings. The problem with this is that Cummings never wrote his name this way, nor does his name appear on any of his printed works in all lower case letters. So, if you are ever called upon to write about E.E. Cummings, please remember to capitalize his name correctly, but do not get too surprised if some editor calls you out and tell you that you have erred in your ways. GLV Writing Tips makes no warranties about whether its opinion carries weight anywhere else, and it is questionable whether it carries any weight here either, but if you want to publish articles more quickly is better to avoid starting headlines or sentences with proper nouns with lower case initial letters if can, and you almost always can.
Commentary by Alan M. Milner