Writing question

James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Thu Nov 11 22:07:02 UTC 1999

A. Vine wrote:
> One of the reasons I want to have some research to back up my claim
> is that I want to get folks in the computer industry, including the
> tech writers, to stop capitalizing a word just because it might be a
> computer term or command somewhere somehow.  Tech writing and user
> interfaces should not be special in this regard, and I believe the
> excess capitalization makes for an unfriendly interface.

Of course manuals and instructions and whatnot should be written in
standard English using standard English conventions.  Conventions
enhance readability and comprehensibility.  (Which is not the whole
point of poetry--case in point: e.e.cummings--but is the whole point of
a manual).

Finding research to prove this is likely to be difficult, though; it's
too basic, too obvious.  Why do they use standard spellings like
"through" and different spellings for "to" and "two"?  Why do they begin
sentences with capital letters and end them with periods?  Why do they
leave spaces between the words?  Why do they write from left to right?
There are plenty of languages that do not follow one or more of these
conventions, but in English we do so--not because research shows that
readers of English find that these conventions enhance readability,
and certainly not because these particular conventions are inherently
more readable--but simply because that's English!  We do it because this
is how written English has developed, and therefore it is what people
expect to see and are comfortable with and not confused by.  Other
languages have *their* conventions, and people who want to be easily
understood in those languages follow *those* conventions.

Now, common words used as terms of art or names of features can pose a
particular problem, and in a technical context there is something to be
said for flagging them in some consistent way.  For example, a neophyte
reading "Go to the file open dialog box and press home and then enter"
could be very confused.  (Go to the file, open the dialog box? Open the
dialog box and the press? The press home? Press homeward? Enter the box?
Enter the home?)  So some device to flag the names is desirable, and I
myself would be inclined to write (in an e-mail, say) "Go to the File
Open dialog box and press Home and then Enter."

But this solution breaks down if the capitalization is not carefully
restricted to specific named terms or features, and even then it is
problematic because in English capitalization serves other purposes as
well.  So a typographic feature such as a distinctive typeface is
obviously a more effective solution.

This topic interests me in part because lawyers are similarly prone to
capitalization:  ". . . the Defendant breached the Contract."  Sometimes
this serves a purpose: Often a lengthy contract begins with a list of
defined terms, each of which is capitalized both in the list of
definitions and then throughout the contract whenever it is being used
in its defined sense.  (For example, "the Insured" might be defined as
the party whose signature appears on the policy, but "insured" as verb
would not be capitalized.)  I don't have a serious problem with this if
done judiciously and with scrupulous consistency:  If the result is that
those words get a little pause and a little emphasis every time the
reader comes across one in a sentence, that is exactly as it should
be--a reminder that this is not just a word, but a term with a specific
definition for the purposes of the agreement.  Moreover, when a contract
has many such terms, this is about the least intrusive way to flag them:
Using quotation marks or bold print or all caps, as is sometimes done,
makes the reading much bumpier.

But the problem remains that convention requires certain words to be
capitalized for reasons that don't fit the scheme, and some lawyers tend
to capitalize randomly anyway.  So it's a device I would consider
employing only in very special situations and only with great care.

James E. Clapp

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