The Initial Caps Trap

When to use initial caps

I lived on my own for many years before getting married. And I had the basics of live down pat. I had my systems and my solutions and they were working just fine. But nothing shakes up a person’s habits and routines like marriage. You now have someone asking you, “Why do you do it that way? Why not this way?” And many times I had to admit that the way I had been doing something was, well…bad. But that’s the way I always did it and it never crossed my mind there was a problem.

As designers, we have our routines. Some of these are long-time habits that we don’t really think about. One example is using two spaces after a period. The issue for today is the use of initial caps. What I’m referring to is when the first letter of every word in a sentence or phrase is capitalized. Why do we do it? If you’re like me, back in school you learned the rules for capitalizing book titles, names of songs, works of art, titles of papers, etc. Roughly, this involves capitalizing all words except for articles, prepositions and conjunctions. This is called title case and there’s nothing wrong with that. But somehow we let this rule creep into areas to which it doesn’t apply. We’ll look at a couple examples, but first, a couple thoughts:

1. Initial caps are hard to read. Oh, maybe not when it’s just three words. But when you use initial caps on an entire sentence, readability goes down.

2. Initial caps look bad. Again, I’m referring to sentence use. The visual flow is interrupted, leaving you with a choppy, cluttered result.

Take the heading for an ad or web page as an example. Our title is about music downloads and reads, “All your favorite artists available for download with free membership.” Do grammar rules state that each word needs to be capitalized? No. This is not a proper title that would be incorrect without title case. Are there any rules stopping you from doing so? Nope. It’s largely a design issue and as such, different situations call for different solutions. But I submit that the majority of the time it is best to capitalize the first word only, especially when you get past four words. Initial caps simply make a sentence unwieldy. They’re overly proper and overly formal.

Even if you choose to ignore my advice in the scenario above, I plead with you on this next application: the list. Here I’m even going to eliminate my “length of phrase” disclaimer. I don’t care if it’s two words or fifty. Do not use initial caps on a list, be it bulleted or numbered. When looking at a list integrating initial caps, I see a mess. I see clutter. I understand you’re listing important things, like the services you offer or the equipment in your facility. But initial caps? Well, let’s look at two examples. First, a list using initial caps:

  • Interior Plumbing for Bathrooms, Kitchens, Basements
  • Fixture Installation and Repair
  • Water Line Hookup
  • Water Efficiency Systems
  • Septic Tanks / Sewer Lines
  • Tree Root Removal

Now, that same list without initial caps:

  • Interior plumbing for bathrooms, kitchens, basements
  • Fixture installation and repair
  • Water line hookup
  • Water efficiency systems
  • Septic tanks / sewer lines
  • Tree root removal

The second is more natural and easier to process. Unless you’re including a proper noun, capitalize the first word of each item and stick to lowercase for the rest. It’s much cleaner, easier to read, and less likely to cause eye spasms.

2 comments

  1. Jim Penson

    I do tech writing and instructional design at a company that manufacturs medical diagnostic equipment. Very techy, to say the least. My issue with init caps is when to use it to describe a particalur function as opposed to a particular noun. For example:
    “Access the Customer Information Database”
    and
    “Contact the Primary Operator”
    These are two examples from an instructional guide a classroom teacher uses with students. To my eye, the first is correct, as it refers to a particular, specific noun. In this case, a database by that name. But the second is less specific. Is the primary operator simply talking about someone who performs a role? Or is it a specific title. In my view, even if it’s a specific title, it shouldn’t have init caps. The examples I give are from bullet points, too. Not a title or heading. Thoughts?

    • Jason Horst

      Jim, thanks for the comment. It’s a great question. I agree with your conclusions. I think capitalizing the database name is correct. It reinforces that fact that it’s referring to a specific database. And as “primary operator” is probably not a specific title, lowercase is what I’d choose. I imagine you run into quite a few judgement calls in your line of work.

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