Why I'm so case-sensitive

by Idris Mercer
May 12th, 2005


Which idiosyncrasies are we obliged to follow?

What do poet Bill Bissett, social critic Bell Hooks, and singer K.D. Lang have in common? You've probably already guessed the answer, but two local people I could also have named are Vancouver lawyer Barbara Findlay and SFU student politician David Fleming-Saraceno. The answer, of course, is that these peoples' names are frequently spelled without capital letters -- even in "professional" contexts such as the worlds of academia and journalism. For just one example, see this item from the SFU student newspaper listing the results of the recent Simon Fraser Student Society elections.

I find it almost unbearably irritating to see individuals' names written entirely in lowercase in a context where everyone else's name is capitalized. If you allow (say) Mr. Fleming-Saraceno's name to be an exception to a rule that all other names follow, it looks too much like proclaiming that the owner of this name is inherently special. This is why I've capitalized the names of all the people mentioned in my first paragraph, and why I'd like to encourage others in the professional writing world to follow suit.

I admit I may appear to be making a bigger deal out of this than most people would. I've done some WWW searches in recent months to see what other people have written on this topic. Two pages where I found particularly literate and thought-provoking e-conversations on the issue are a blog entry titled Naming etiquette, and the blog entry referenced at the end of the "Naming etiquette" one, which is titled On the difficult matter of names. Many of the comments accompanying these blog entries are more tolerant of people's names being lowercased than I am, and a common theme seems to be: "Isn't it just plain discourteous not to write people's names in the way that they prefer?"

I don't relish the idea of appearing discourteous, and that's why I've substantially rewritten this diatribe, replacing an earlier version that was crankier, had more rhetorical questions that bordered on sneering, and had more exclamation marks. Still, if you're an adult who has achieved prominence in the world of politics or law or academia, then your idiosyncrasies should be fair game for criticism. I don't want to appear quite as prickly or cantankerous as this blog entry by a fellow named Woodlief, but I must admit that I appreciate his frustration. My belief is that it's inappropriate and unprofessional -- I even want to say "obnoxious" -- to expect your own name to appear in lowercase in contexts where everyone else's name is capitalized. Why insist your own name is different? And why should we "play along" with those who do?

There are many situations where I completely agree with the sentiment "Call people what they want to be called". If someone named Kathryn Dawn decides she prefers to be called Dawn or K.D. or Kathy, or if she changes her name to Cathrynne or Katharine or Jade, then it would be needlessly rude to ignore her stated preference. But I would draw the line if Kathryn made a point of saying she preferred "kathryn" to "Kathryn". To my mind, such a request would be asking for a fundamentally different kind of treatment from the ordinary courtesy we extend to somebody who changes their name or prefers to use their middle name. The spelling or pronunciation of your name is a feature of your name, but capitalization of proper nouns is a feature of the surrounding language.

Here's the best analogy I've come up with so far to try to explain my feelings. If you ask to be called "Dawn" rather than "Kathryn", it's like you belong to a chess club where the various sets of chess pieces don't quite look identical, and you ask to use one particular set because you think its rooks have a nicer shape. But if you ask to be called "kathryn" rather than "Kathryn" -- and everyone else's name is capitalized -- then it's more like you belong to the chess club and you ask that your rooks be allowed to move in a different way from everyone else's rooks. Changing the pieces you play with is very different from changing the rules of the game! One of the comments from "On the difficult matter of names" puts it quite well: "My personal feeling is that one should be permitted control over the spelling and pronunciation of one's own name up to the point that the name does not start taking over its immediate environment."

In the spirit of fairness, I should make an interjection here. Obviously, the example names in my previous two paragraphs are inspired by K.D. Lang. Now having never met Ms. Lang, nor indeed being able to recall reading lengthy interviews with her, I don't have a clue how much she actually cares how her name is written. It's quite possible she's not the least bit bothered when people capitalize her name. Maybe it's simply that she likes to write her name in lowercase, and then when other folks write about her, some of them choose to use lowercase and some use capitals. If that's how it is, then my ire should be reserved not for Ms. Lang, but for those writers and editors who make a point of lowercasing her name. I ought to be careful not to put words in people's mouths when I speculate about their motivations. Still, it irks me that on Barbara Findlay's online bio, she writes "My name is spelled without capital letters" rather than "I spell my name without capital letters". I also take issue with her use of the word "spelled" in this context. Read on for more on this topic, if you have time to spare.

Why lowercasing your name goes beyond just changing its spelling.

When all other names are capitalized, a lowercase name is jarring to the eye. Maybe it's largely my inner typesetter or copy editor speaking, but I think "jane doe" stands out just as glaringly as "JANE DOE" does. In the online world, writing in all caps is often regarded as the equivalent of shouting. Continuing the analogy, a lone lowercase name among capitalized names is the equivalent of someone holding an enormous sign that reads "I'M A WHISPERER!" Lowercasing your name is more than just typographically ugly attention-seeking, though. It also effectively amounts to proclaiming that your name is no ordinary name, but instead has extra properties that spill over into the surrounding language. Words and names don't get to do that. Your name's not a magic name.

Let's consider the following example of an English sentence: "Blueberry muffins were on sale at Buy-Low yesterday; they tasted better than the blueberry muffins from Safeway." If you and I were having a conversation, and I asked you how often the word "blueberry" appears in that sentence, you would say it appears twice. Whether it's capitalized or not, it's the same word. Webster's doesn't have one entry for "blueberry" and another for "Blueberry". And those books that tell you the history and meaning of various names don't have one entry for "jane" and another for "Jane" and another for "JANE". Capitalization isn't "part" of a word or name.

A copy editor named Bill Walsh has this to say on the topic. He writes, in part, "Even if you disagree with me on this point, please, please don't go the extra step toward lunacy and insist on lowercasing the T in 'Thirtysomething' or the K in 'K.D. Lang' or the A in 'Adidas' in a case where you'd uppercase 'dog' or 'tree' or 'muffin'." Such near-lunacy can be found at the Wikipedia entries for Bill Bissett and Bell Hooks and K.D. Lang; in each case, their names are lowercased even at the beginning of a sentence. In conventional English, proper nouns are always capitalized, whereas common nouns are usually lowercased unless they happen to occur at the beginning of a sentence (or, say, in those titles that capitalize each word). Conventional English has no words that are always lowercased -- no words that are somehow "forbidden" ever to be capitalized. Is it reasonable to treat somebody's name as a "new kind" of word? Is it discourteous not to?

Of course, some people who write their names in lowercase don't go that far. Berkeley PhD student Danah Boyd doesn't capitalize her name or the word "I", but she does capitalize "I" when it happens to be the first word of the sentence. However, there are others, such as Perl programmer Brian D Foy, who has a style guide on his website explaining the "correct" way to write his name. Notice that he actually has the nerve to claim that if you "normally capitalize the first word of a sentence" (in other words, if you are anyone writing in conventional English), then you should "recast" the sentence so that it doesn't begin with his name. Now really, this is just too much. You don't get to specify that your name can only appear in certain positions in a sentence, any more than you get to specify that your name can't appear in sentences starting with a Q.

Some readers may be surprised I've made it this far into my rant without yet mentioning E.E. Cummings, who used unconventional capitalization in many of his poems, and who along with Hooks and Lang is probably one of the most famous people to have their names frequently written in lowercase. Two articles by Cummings scholar Norman Friedman, published in 1992 and 1996 respectively, indicate that however much Cummings played with typography in his poetry, he did not request that his name generally be written by others as "e.e. cummings". (There is even a rumour that Cummings legally changed his name into lowercase, but this appears to be just plain false.) I'd like to mention one thing from Friedman's 1996 article that particularly stood out for me. In 1951, an author preparing a French translation of some works of Cummings wrote a letter to the poet, asking him whether his name should be lowercased on the title page. Cummings replied that he liked "E.E. Cummings, unless your printer prefers E. E. Cummings".

You see, for people such as E.E. Cummings, K.D. Lang, and C.S. Lewis, who are best known by the initials of their given names, there are two different conventions one can use when referring to them in print. There's the "gappy" way, where one inserts a space between (say) the "C." and the "S." (this is what I've done in the bibliography for my thesis), and then there's the "squished" way, where said space is omitted (this is what I've done on the page you're now reading). With apologies to K.D. Lang (her surname is easy to rhyme), let's now consider two hypothetical individuals called K.D. Pang and K.D. Tang. Suppose Pang is fond of the "gappy" way of writing initials of given names, whereas Tang prefers the "squished" way. And suppose the city that Pang and Tang live in has two newspapers: the Post, which uses the "gappy" way, and the Tribune, which uses the "squished" way. I'd argue that each newspaper is well within its rights to apply its rule uniformly, and that it would in fact border on presumptuous if Pang or Tang asked the Tribune or Post: "Please write my name using a different convention from the one your paper uses for E.E. Cummings and K.D. Lang and C.S. Lewis."

Readers who followed the link to my thesis and looked at my bibliography may have noticed that for brevity, I have used initials instead of given names. Let's say N. Alon (using the first name in my bibliography as an example) informs me that his name simply doesn't get abbreviated, and I should spell his name in full as Noga Alon. Surely this would be so presumptuous as to be ridiculous. You don't get to declare that your name "doesn't get" abbreviated, any more than you can declare that your name can't appear in blue ink, or on yellow paper, or in a sans-serif typeface. Having a name doesn't entitle you to control all aspects of writings that mention your name; in particular, you don't get to control aspects of design or typography. You don't get to control the typeface or the font size, you don't get to control where your name appears in a sentence, you don't get to say that your name can't be abbreviated, and you don't get to say that your name can't be capitalized.

What might lowercasing mean to different people? Why do I care?

People have given different reasons for writing their names in lowercase. Sometimes, people cite aesthetic reasons: Danah Boyd talks about "balance" on her page about the way she writes her name, and Barbara Findlay's online biography mentions a lowercase rendition of her name on some letterhead. Other times, people claim to have political reasons for lowercasing their name. This is the case with Ms. Boyd, and I think an effective rejoinder can be found in the comment by Moebius Stripper (a fellow British Columbian math type!) at the previously mentioned blog entry called "Naming etiquette":
I was underwhelmed by danah's explanation for why she isn't Danah; that among other things, she "always thought it was quite self-righteous" to capitalize names and nothing else -- "i was told that the world does not revolve around me, yet our written culture is telling me something completely different." And her response to this is... writing a page about herself and her name and why she went out of her way to make it special and different from all of the other names. Hmm. With nearly all other names in the English language capitalized, it's a lot less self-righteous to leave your own as-is than it is to demand special treatment on political grounds, methinks.
I've also explained this in the past by saying that lowercasing your name looks an awful lot like saying "I am the humblest person in the room, and damn proud of it." In the remainder of my rant, I've attempted to capture in words just why it is that I am so intensely annoyed at the insinuation that lowercasing names can somehow be deep or meaningful or principled.

You can't proclaim yourself to be transcendent. Earlier, I referred to a blog entry by a fellow named Woodlief. The very last comment at that blog entry (dated July 20, 2004) says, in part: "bell hooks does not ignore the rules of grammar just to be cute or because she's too lazy to push the shift key while typing. Instead, hooks is challenging the entire system currrently in place, a system based on egoistic patriarchy." This sounds so pompous I want to scream and bang my head against my desk. With defenders like these, Bell Hooks barely even needs critics. As if "challenging the entire system" is so easy: you just say you're doing it, and replace some capital letters with lowercase ones.

There's a saying I love that I think is relevant here: "Don't tell me you're a Christian. Let me figure it out." (It's attributed to Martin Luther King on this website, and is listed as "author unknown" on this one.) This saying can apply to belief systems other than Christianity; the point is just that it's extremely easy to say that you're a good Christian or a good Buddhist or a good anti-racist or a good anti-imperialist. Don't put your energy into strutting around wearing a label that says "subversive anti-oppression activist" (that's the easy part); instead, act in such a way that people would describe you as helping to end oppression (that's the hard part). I wish idealistic lefties were more aware of the simple truth that if you give the impression of proclaiming yourself to be transcendent, this can be counterproductive from a strategic point of view. Wouldn't Bell Hooks rather be known as "that writer who has innovative strategies for ending oppression" than "that writer who perversely writes her name in lowercase"?

I don't mean to pick on Ms. Hooks here. I haven't read enough of her work to make informed comments on it, and I know she has a good reputation among people who devote time and energy to difficult and important topics related to race and gender and oppression. But precisely because these topics are important, I think people writing on them ought to present themselves and their ideas in a straightforward, unpretentious manner. It's fine to be subversive and iconoclastic -- indeed, it's often necessary in order to get society to change and learn and grow -- but it just irks me when people are not content merely to present iconoclastic ideas, but also give the impression of saying "You see, I am so inherently iconoclastic that it spills over into everything I do, and so I can't even write my name in the usual way."

If you want to be a principled subversive, then more power to you, but you have to do that through the content of your writing -- not the way in which you write your name. Come to think of it, isn't it a bit insulting to "real" revolutionary activity? To insinuate that merely replacing a capital letter with a lowercase letter is somehow accomplishing something? I realize that technically, it's possible to do both; your writing might have subversive content and you might write your name in an unorthodox way, but why does one have to accompany the other?

Not only can it be annoying when people come across as declaring themselves to be inherently transcendent or special, but you don't really "get" to do it, for the same reason that you can't lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. It's the same reason that when you create a comic strip or a painting or a poem, you don't really "get" to say things like "This art is daring and groundbreaking and original." (I think this point is illustrated rather humorously in the second panel of the second page of this Peter Bagge cartoon.) Obviously, at a fundamental freedom-of-speech level you have a right to describe your art or your writing however you like, but it's irritating and pretentious-looking to describe yourself in a way that insinuates you're a different type of person (pun intended).

It's just plain rude to declare yourself to be exempt from the rules, especially if your reasons appear to be not much more than "I like it when an exception is made for me." It's rude for very basic reasons that were taught to us in childhood. It's rude to yell and jump up and down when everyone around you is being quiet. When a sign in a park says "Don't pick the flowers", it's rude to pick one and then say "Oh, I'm just one person and I'm only taking one flower." As strange and cynical as it might superficially appear, a huge part of our morality or ethics revolves around the maxim: "You're not special".