Capital Idea

One of the most common corrections an English-language teacher has to make is when a student uses a lower-case letter instead of a capital letter.

For a language you need to use a capital letter.

When you’re talking about a nationality you need to use a capital letter.

A person’s name always begins with a capital letter.

You have to start a sentence with…etc. etc.

Mistakes with capital letters are common and understandable.

Most Romance languages (Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish) don’t use capital letters as much as English, and when they do, they sometimes use them differently. Names of languages, days of the week and nationalities, for example, don’t tend to be capitalized in these languages. Though in Italian you can capitalize an object or concept to emphasize it, which I like.

German writing, on the other hand, probably features more capital letters than English, as every noun is capitalized.

I’m always intrigued by capitalization: what do we mean when we do it, and do we react differently when words are capitalized? Certainly for me, a capital letter conveys a sense of importance. Even without seeing one, just the word capital conveys a sense of prominence, of grandeur: capital city, capital ship, the _____ capital of the world. Related words like captain, they all derive from the Latin caput, meaning head, and make one think of the top, the best.

When I read my name in an email addressed to me with a lower-case n, it looks so meagre, so unimportant. Likewise if I read that someone say is an english teacher. It feels like it diminishes the word. It just doesn’t seem, well, proper, and it’s no coincidence that one of the most common uses of capital letters in most languages is with proper nouns, i.e. names of people, companies, titles of artworks etc. And that word proper is loaded with connotations: right, correct, appropriate. So when I also see uncapitalized words in other languages that would be capitalized in English, I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t seem proper. If someone is irlandais,  irlandese, irlandês, or irlandesa it doesn’t seem to have the same weight as Irish. To me, it feels like the capital letter gives more respect and importance to a nationality.

Ah but that’s probably just my Anglophone bias. Is it really possible that not using a capital letter gives Romance-language speakers a different conception of nationality, or other concepts that are capitalized in English? I doubt it. Especially if they grew up using lower-case letters. How can it seem diminished when you didn’t grow up with the same words being capitalized in English to contrast with? The many such people I’ve known and may be reading this haven’t seemed to be particularly racist, for example, just as the German speakers I’ve known haven’t revered every noun they’ve used just because they capitalized them.

I’d be curious to know what it’s like to have the shoe on the other foot: if you speak a Romance language (or some other), does it seem strange or overly-formal to you when we use capital letters for words that you don’t? If you speak German, do all English nouns seem small and pitiful? Let me know what you think.

8 thoughts on “Capital Idea

  1. I do a lot of this mistake in english because Portuguese language we just use capital letter for people name and places like city if you understand me 🙂 My english needs to be much better haha
    By the way, thanks for the nice words on my blog 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s my pleasure, I like to share nice words when I can :). I think it’s so easy to make mistakes with capitals because every language uses them a little differently. And we learn the way we use them when we’re very young, so it’s hard to learn to use them in a different way when we’re older. I remember learning to write my capital letters when I was 4, so it’s strange for me to see words without them! The good thing is that people still understand what you’re saying if you don’t use them, so it’s a good mistake to make. I think it’s much better to use interesting words without capital letters, than to use boring words with capitals :).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hehehe. True, I have difficulty to remember to use capitals on words lik English, Portuguese etc… Because we dont write like that in Brasil, but after i found your blog I’m learning more and I’m really happy that you blog about English language 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m really happy to hear that: I think I love teaching so much I can’t just do it in the classroom and want to share my thoughts about English with everyone! And please feel free to ask me any boring grammar questions you might have: I love answering them :D.

          Liked by 1 person

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