all capsFine for less than one line

All-caps text—mean­ing text with all the let­ters cap­i­tal­ized—is best used sparingly.

At stan­dard body text sizes, cap­i­tal let­ters—or sim­ply caps—are harder to read than nor­mal low­er­case text. Why? We read more low­er­case text, so as a mat­ter of habit, low­er­case is more fa­mil­iar and thus more leg­i­ble. Fur­ther­more, cog­ni­tive re­search has sug­gested that the shapes of low­er­case let­ters—some tall (d h k l), some short (a e n s), some de­scend­ing (g y p q)—cre­ate a var­ied vi­sual con­tour that helps our brain rec­og­nize words. Cap­i­tal­iza­tion ho­mog­e­nizes these shapes, leav­ing a rec­tan­gu­lar contour.

Legible Shapesvaried
LEGIBLE SHAPESrectangular

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use caps. But use them ju­di­ciously. Caps are suit­able for head­ings shorter than one line (e.g.,Table of Au­thor­i­ties”), head­ers, foot­ers, cap­tions, or other la­bels. Caps work at small point sizes. Caps work well on let­ter­head and busi­ness cards. Al­ways add let­terspac­ing to caps to make them eas­ier to read, and make sure kern­ing is turned on.

DON’T CAP­I­TAL­IZE WHOLE PARA­GRAPHS. THIS HABIT IS EN­DEMIC TO LAWYERS, BUT IT’S ES­PE­CIALLY COM­MON IN CON­TRACTS. MANY LAWYERS SEEM TO THINK THAT CAP­I­TAL­IZA­TION COM­MU­NI­CATES AU­THOR­ITY AND IM­POR­TANCE. “HEY, LOOK HERE, I’M A LAWYER! I DE­MAND THAT YOU PAY AT­TEN­TION TO THIS!” BUT A PARA­GRAPH SET IN ALL CAPS IS VERY HARD TO READ. IT’S EVEN WORSE IN BOLD. AS THE PARA­GRAPH WEARS ON, READ­ERS FA­TIGUE. IN­TER­EST WANES. HOW ABOUT YOU? DO YOU EN­JOY READ­ING THIS? I DOUBT IT. BUT I REG­U­LARLY SEE CAP­I­TAL­IZED PARA­GRAPHS THAT ARE MUCH LONGER THAN THIS. DO YOUR READ­ERS A FA­VOR. STOP CAP­I­TAL­IZ­ING WHOLE PARAGRAPHS.

All-caps para­graphs are an ex­am­ple of self-de­feat­ing ty­pog­ra­phy. If you need read­ers to pay at­ten­tion to an im­por­tant part of your doc­u­ment, the last thing you want is for them to skim over it. But that’s what in­evitably hap­pens with all-caps para­graphs be­cause they’re so hard to read.

To em­pha­size a para­graph, you have bet­ter op­tions. Use rules and bor­ders. Add a head­ing that la­bels it Im­por­tant. Run it in a larger point size. But don’t cap­i­tal­ize it.

There are two ways to put caps in a doc­u­ment. The pop­u­lar method is to en­gage the caps-lock key at the left edge of the key­board and type away. That works, but it makes cap­i­tal­iza­tion a per­ma­nent fea­ture of your text.

The pre­ferred method is to ap­ply all-caps for­mat­ting to nor­mally typed text. That way, you can tog­gle cap­i­tal­iza­tion on and off with­out re­typ­ing the text itself.

WordMac OS WordWordPerfect
all capscontrol + shift + acommand + shift + acontrol + k (converts case)
by the way
  • It can be use­ful to cap­i­tal­ize spe­cially de­fined terms to dis­tin­guish them from their generic coun­ter­parts. But cap­i­tal­ize only the first let­ter. Don’t set the whole word in caps, or worse, bold caps. Like­wise, you can re­fer to party Omi­cron Mo­tor Com­pany as Omi­cron—you don’t need to write its name OMI­CRON or OMI­CRON. When you set a word like OMI­CRON in caps, you’re putting a vi­sual speed bump in every sen­tence that men­tions OMI­CRON. As the habit mul­ti­plies, soon you’re talk­ing about how OMI­CRON and SIGMA con­spired to make AIRBAGS that in­jured the PLAIN­TIFF and the rest of the CLASS. At that point, you haven’t made your DOC­U­MENT eas­ier to READ. You’ve only MADE it more AN­NOY­ING.

  • Nicer pro­fes­sional fonts in­clude al­ter­nate fig­ures and punc­tu­a­tion that are de­signed to align cor­rectly with caps. These al­ter­nates are avail­able as Open­Type fea­tures.

  • Some­times caps are re­quired by law—for in­stance, Cal­i­for­nia re­quires that de­fined terms in dis­cov­ery re­quests be set in all caps (e.g., Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 2030.060(e)). And some­times caps are pro­hib­ited by law—for in­stance, New York court rules say that “[e]xcept in head­ings, words shall not be in bold type or type con­sist­ing of all cap­i­tal let­ters.” (22 N.Y.C.R.R. 500.1(j)).

  • Ex­ces­sive cap­i­tal­iza­tion is a scourge of many con­tracts. More on that, there.

  • If your all-caps text con­tains a ci­ta­tion with a small-let­ter sub­di­vi­sion, don’t cap­i­tal­ize the sub­di­vi­sion let­ter—it may ren­der the ci­ta­tion am­bigu­ous or incorrect.

  • “Why re­ject un­der­lin­ing but not caps? Aren’t they both type­writer habits?” No. Caps are the orig­i­nal al­pha­betic char­ac­ters. They are part of the old­est tra­di­tions of our writ­ten lan­guage. Un­der­lin­ing can­not claim a sim­i­lar pedi­gree. Caps in Eng­lish de­scend di­rectly from the Latin al­pha­bet. (That’s why ba­sic, un­styled fonts are called ro­man.) Through the early Mid­dle Ages, scribes in Eu­rope adapted the Latin al­pha­bet into smaller, more ca­sual forms, called mi­nus­cules. In the 700s, Charle­magne started a project to cre­ate a stan­dard­ized script across his em­pire. That script, Car­olin­gian mi­nus­cule, spread through Eu­rope and pop­u­lar­ized the com­bi­na­tion of up­per­case and low­er­case let­ters that’s been a fea­ture of printed Eu­ro­pean lan­guages since then.

  • To those law­yers who type emails in all caps: enough al­ready. You don’t have to shout. We can hear you just fine.

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