The Grammarphobia Blog

The rise and fall of capital letters

Q: In rereading Emily Dickinson’s poems, I’m impressed by her use of midline capitals. Can you shed some light on the capitalization of common nouns in 19th-century America? Is it intended for emphasis?

A: When William Caxton introduced printing to England in the 15th century, “great uncertainty” surrounded the use of capital letters, according to the linguist David Crystal.

In The Stories of English (2004), Crystal writes that capital letters were “first used for proper names as well as for sentence and verse-line openings.”

Later, he says, capitals “were extended to any words thought to be important (such as titles, terms of address, and personification) as well as to words receiving special emphasis.”

“During the seventeenth century, virtually any word might be capitalized, if it were felt to be significant, and compositors—to be on the safe side—tended to over-capitalize,” he writes.

In the 19th century, he adds, “a reaction set in against excessive capitalization … and we find the present-day system emerging.”

“Then as now there were heavy and light capitalizers, as well as heavy and light punctuators,” Crystal says. “Indeed, this is one of the areas where standard English is still most unstable, as a glance at the ‘sometimes capitalized’ note in modern dictionaries suggests.”

In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Crystal expands on some of these points, noting efforts by John Hart, a 16th-century grammarian and spelling reformer, to bring some order to the language.

“Hart recommended his readers to use a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence, proper name, and important common noun,” he writes. “By the 17th century, the practice had extended to titles (Sir, Lady), forms of address (Father, Mistris), and personified nouns (Nature).  Emphasized words and phrases would also attract a capital.”

By the beginning of the 18th century, Crystal writes, “the influence of Continental books had caused this practice to be extended still further (e.g. to the names of the branches of knowledge), and it was not long before some writers began using a capital for any noun that they felt to be important.”

“Books appeared in which all or most nouns were given an initial capital (as is done systematically in modern German)— perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or perhaps because printers were uncertain about which nouns to capitalize, and so capitalized them all,” he writes.

Crystal says the use of capitals “was at its height in the later 17th century, and continued into the 18th. The manuscripts of Butler, Traherne, Swift, and Pope are full of initial capitals.”

“However, the later 18th-century grammarians were not amused by this apparent lack of discipline in the written language,” he says. “In their view, the proliferation of capitals was unnecessary, and causing the loss of a useful potential distinction. Their rules brought a dramatic reduction in the types of noun permitted to take a capital letter.”

We’ll end with “This Is My Letter to the World,” a poem in which Emily Dickinson uses capital letters liberally:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me

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