Particularly since social media came into our lives, typing in capital letters has been widely seen as a hallmark of poor communication. Even in as far back as 2000 though, Iowa native Derek Arnold was so fed up of upper case text being overused, he declared October 22 to be Caps Lock Day.
If you see words or whole sentences in block capitals, it’s hard to escape the vision that the person writing it is red with rage and is trying to “shout” at you from behind their keyboard. This perception has been celebrated and lamented over the years, with memes like the below.
So why do people continue to do it?
US President Donald Trump is one of the worst proponents of overusing Caps Lock on his Twitter account. He has previously insisted that he uses capital letters for emphasis, and not simply because he doesn’t know when he should and shouldn’t be using them, but shouldn’t he be able to string an eloquent tweet together without shouting at us?
There are times when typed communication makes it difficult to convey the same emphasis and intonation as spoken word. Consider a sentence like “I never said she stole my money”, the meaning of which can change significantly depending on which word is stressed. There are sneaky ways to use formatting tweaks like using bold and italic lettering on social media, but it’s not easy, so capitalising the odd word in sentence like that might help clarify your communication.
The “odd word” is the key point to remember though. If you find yourself capitalising whole phrases and sentences, you’re probably just going to come across as angry and aggressive, and when people do this, online discourse becomes hostile and toxic. That raises the question of whether keyboards should come with a key that facilitates this form of communication. Is it too much to ask that if people must shout at us, they at least go to the trouble of holding down the Shift key?
The Google Chromebook comes without a Caps Lock key (although it is pretty easy to activate typing in all capitals), and in 2006, iMartix CEO Pieter Hintjens started a campaign to try to get manufacturers to phase the key out, describing it as “an abomination”.
Caps Lock apologists will argue that it’s sometimes important to use capital letters to grab attention. Warning signs like “DO NOT CROSS” are taken more seriously when capitalised, as they are seen as instructions. It could be argued that capitals are easier to process when seen quickly too, and avoid problems like a lower case ‘l’ being mistaken for a capital ‘I’, hence their common use on road signs and markings.
Journalists are likely to be advocates of the Caps Lock key. Headlines are often written in block capitals to catch our eyes. Reactionary right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail regularly print individual words in capitals near the start of their articles for Trump-style emphasis. With speed typing important in reporting breaking news, journos might argue that they shouldn’t have to type with one hand while holding down shift with the other.
The counter argument is that word processing tools like Microsoft Word have a ‘Change Case’ function, meaning you can highlight a section and immediately convert it to UPPER CASE or Capitilise Each Word, for example. At least if you have to do that, it might make you think about whether capitals are really necessary.
There are compelling cases for consigning Caps Lock to digital heaven, but perhaps we would be better off educating ourselves and others to display better etiquette in online communication. Caps Lock is a convenient function that’s there when we need it, so let’s use it wisely and try not to raise our digital ‘voice’ unless we really need to.