all capsFine for one line or less

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

At 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 (dhkl), some short (aens), some de­scend­ing (gypq)—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. Just use them ju­di­ciously. Caps are suit­able for head­ings shorter than one line (e.g., “Ta­ble of Con­tents”), head­ers, foot­ers, cap­tions, or other la­bels. Caps work at small point sizes. Caps work well on let­ter­head and busi­ness cards.

BUT DON’T CAP­I­TAL­IZE WHOLE PARA­GRAPHS. THIS HABIT ORIG­I­NATED WITH LAWYERS AND HAS IN­FECTED SO­CI­ETY AT LARGE. THUS, MANY WRIT­ERS STILL BE­LIEVE THAT CAP­I­TAL­IZA­TION COM­MU­NI­CATES AU­THOR­ITY AND IM­POR­TANCE. “HEY, LOOK HERE, I’VE GOT SOME­THING IM­POR­TANT TO SAY! I DE­MAND THAT YOU PAY AT­TEN­TION!” BUT A PARA­GRAPH SET IN ALL CAPS IS VERY HARD TO READ. AND IT’S EVEN HARDER TO READ IF IT’S 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 dif­fi­cult 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. But this only changes the case—for best re­sults, you’ll also want to add let­terspac­ing, and turn on kern­ing.

How to apply all-caps formatting

Word 2007 & 2010 con­trol + shift + a

Word 2011 com­mand + shift + a

Pages ’09 FormatFontCapitalizationAll Caps

CSS text-trans­form: uppercase

by the way
  • Caps are of­ten found in le­gal con­tracts, like war­ranties and EU­LAs, be­cause many lawyers be­lieve that caps are re­quired by con­tract laws that call for “con­spic­u­ous” text. Oh re­ally? The Uni­form Com­mer­cial Code de­fines “con­spic­u­ous” as “writ­ten, dis­played, or pre­sented [so] that a rea­son­able per­son against which it is to op­er­ate ought to have no­ticed it,” but notes that “[w]het­her a term is ‘con­spic­u­ous’ or not is a de­ci­sion for the court.” (UCC § 1-201(b)(10).) Fur­ther­more, one promi­nent court, the Ninth Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals, has writ­ten that “[l]awyers who think their caps lock keys are in­stant ‘make con­spic­u­ous’ but­tons are de­luded. In de­ter­min­ing whether a term is con­spic­u­ous, we look at more than for­mat­ting.” (In re Bas­sett, 285 F.3d 882, 886 (9th Cir. 2002).) My com­pli­ments to those who take this sug­ges­tion se­ri­ously.

  • “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 hold­outs who are still typ­ing e-mails in all caps: enough al­ready. You don’t have to shout. We can hear you just fine.