Mind your language

Capital letters

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

One man’s grammatical nicety is another man’s grotesque solecism, I thought, as I perused a report in the Gulf News, where gold prices and prayer times jostle at the masthead. It concerned standards of grammar at schools in Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

‘Our students should be trained on getting the message across,’ said a mathematics teacher. ‘Some sacrifices might have to be done, such as doing away with capital letters, but that should not be a major point of contention.’


Well, I don’t know. We have grown used to capital letters in our writing system, inconsistent as their use may be. We may find it strange that the ancient Romans did not make a regular distinction between the capital and small forms of letters, but, as with the use of spaces between words, we find it helpful. Yet we also regard frequent capitalisation in the 18th century puzzling. There would be some sense in capitalising nouns (as in German) but the contemporaries of Samuel Johnson went further. Even so, how weird it looks today to spell the first-person pronoun as i, not I.

Some frown upon capitals. In the Financial Times, George Osborne is called the chancellor. The paper doesn’t trouble with ‘of the Exchequer’, which would look even odder all in lower-case letters. It leans to the style of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which reduces capitalisation to a minimum, so that even the duke of Wellington is accorded only one.

Once you let capital letters in, where do you stop? Perhaps the richest capital-letter fauna is in the Court Circular. The official source of the British Monarchy refers to the Queen as ‘The Queen’. I find this very rum. It makes her look like a work of fiction. Other people like to use a capital for the definite article in the Queen’s College, Oxford. This too seems perverse. The college itself heads a section of its website: ‘A Brief History of The Queen’s College’, but in the first sentence it notes the foundation in 1341 of the ‘Hall of the Queen’s Scholars at Oxford’.

So the Manama proposal, modest as abolition of all capital letters may seem, is likely to attract resistance in the highest place.       

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