The Yelling Case: Communication Etiquette in a Digital Age

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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Yesterday was a momentous day for the National Weather Service. On May 11, 2016, more than 146 years after it began communicating with the American people, the National Weather Service has officially stopped yelling at us. That’s right, you will now begin to receive your forecasts in sentence case rather than the antiquated all caps, or yelling case.

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So how did the convention of using capital letters for emphasis begin, and when did those same letters start getting such a bad rap? An article on the subject (and there are many; apparently the Internet has VERY strong feelings about the caps lock) suggests that the history of using uppercase letters dates all the way back to the Roman Empire, when pompous emperors used the proverbial caps lock to brag about their accomplishments through inscriptions on monuments. But not all capital letters have their roots in bragging, yelling, or otherwise unpleasant outlets of communication. Jump ahead a few millennia to the age of modern weather forecasting, as mentioned above, during which teleprinters revolutionized the transmission of weather reports. These teleprinters, which were basically a typewriter-telephone hybrid, were only capable of transmitting uppercase letters. Through the years, of course, technology has changed, but traditions kept the uppercase forecasts en vogue for the next half century or so.

Though particulars like letter case, punctuation, etc. had become fairly well regulated by publishers throughout the 20th century, the unregulated nature of the Internet added a deeper level of complexity to the conventions of writing. Additionally, while variations in font such as bold and italics can easily convey emphasis on a printed sheet, those styles can sometimes get lost on lower resolution screens. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, though, and Internet users explored solutions for their emphasizing needs. According to Internet user Dave Decot in 1984:

There seem to be some conventions developing in the use of various emphasizers. There are three kinds of emphasis in use, in order of popularity:

1) using CAPITAL LETTERS to make words look “louder”,

2) using *asterisks* to put sparklers around emphasized words, and

3) s p a c i n g words o u t, possibly accompanied by 1) or 2).

Of course, convention number 1 has stuck and has left the caps lock haters hating for decades.

So what is a modern society of digital savvy communicators to do to combat the tyranny of the caps lock? If you’re Google or IBM, you can just do away with the caps lock key entirely and pretend like it never existed. If you’re brave, like Sian S. Rathore  or Kashmir Hill, you can try your own caps lock experiment and see how long it takes the Internet to start arriving with the pitchforks. Just be careful not to lose your job over it like this healthcare worker from New Zealand. But if you’re like the rest of us, you’ll just keep on reading the Internet yelling, and try not to judge the caps lock users too harshly.