OPINION: Capital punishment

As a fully paid-up grammar pedant, I have to confess to having a growing obsession with capital letters.

More specifically, my obsession is directed at the incorrect use of initial capital letters, and I should hereby like to launch a campaign against them.

The rules for using initial capital letters in English are pretty clear. The Economist Style Guide expresses it thus, “A balance has to be struck between so many capitals that the eyes dance and so few that the reader is diverted more by our style than by our substance. The general rule is to dignify with capital letters organisations and institutions, but not people.”

But not people. Hold on to that thought.  

I regularly receive press releases and other communications that are rammed full of incorrect initial capital letters. Typically, they go something like this:

“Leveraging [you know how I feel about that word] our Emerging Market Team’s leading-edge expertise, the Fund will invest in the Emerging Markets Sector [or – shudders – Space].”

This is all quite, quite wrong. This is the “so many capitals that the eyes dance” against which The Economist Style Guide quite rightly warns us. Initial capital letters should only be used with proper nouns in English, and there is not a single proper noun in the sentence above.

I will go further. I will say that I have never read a well-written document that speaks of the Fund, the Regulator, the Emerging Markets or the Fund Manager. Incorrect use of initial capital letters is a sure-fire sign that a text will be bad. And the thinking behind it unclear.

Why should that be? It is because those initial capital letters – particularly when used in people’s job titles – are not just incorrect; they are arrogant. Or if not always knowingly arrogant, then still over-reaching and pompous.

Imagine what you would think if I described my occupation to you like this, “I am Journalist who writes a Regular Monthly Column for a Magazine.” Or if we scrolled back into the dim and distant past when I was employed at a hotel located at the foot of Schloß Neuschwanstein in Bavaria in the summer holidays, “I am Chambermaid who cleans Bedrooms and Bathrooms and hoovers Hallways.”

Those statements, which are dancing with capital letters, look ridiculous. But it is no more ridiculous to write them than it is to write, “XYZ Asset Management has appointed Jeremy Codswallop as Global Head of Institutional Sales, Europe, Middle East and Asia.”

The Economist Style Guide has this to say about office-holders, “When referred to merely by their office, not by their name, office-holders are lower case.” And it gives some telling examples: the foreign secretary, the prime minister, the chairman of British Airways.

There are, The Economist Style Guide says, just a few exalted people to whom this rule does not apply,“the Dalai Lama, the Aga Khan. Also God and the Prophet”.

As well as being pompous, incorrect initial capital letters present another problem. They are insincere. Because deep down everyone knows that their Fund is not particularly important, and neither is their Global Head of Institutional Sales, Europe, Middle East and Asia.

In his essay written in 1946, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell said that the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

And to unnecessary initial capital letters. Sometimes it’s the smaller things that give us away.

So when you’re next tempted to put initial capital letters on your or a colleague’s job title, stop and think. Who is closer to God: you or your Cleaner?

Fiona Rintoul is editorial director at Funds Europe

©2014 funds europe



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