Letter case

Letter case
Williamsburg eighteenth century press letters

In orthography and typography, letter case (or just case) is the distinction between the larger majuscule (capital, caps, upper-case, upper case, or uppercase) and smaller minuscule (lower-case, etc.) letters. The term originated with the shallow drawers called type cases still used to hold the movable type for letterpress printing.

In the Roman alphabet, majuscules (play /məˈʌskjuːlz/ or /ˈmæəskjuːlz/) are A, B, C, etc.; minuscules are a, b, c, etc.

Most occidental languages (certainly those based on the Latin, Cyrillic, Greek, Armenian alphabets, and Coptic alphabets) use multiple letter-cases in their written form as an aid to clarity. Scripts using two separate cases are also called "bicameral scripts". Many other writing systems (such as those used in the Georgian language, Glagolitic, Arabic, Hebrew, and Devanagari) make no distinction between capital and lowercase letters – a system called unicase. If an alphabet has case, all or nearly all letters have both forms. Both forms in each pair are considered to be the same letter: they have the same name, same pronunciation, and will be treated identically when sorting in alphabetical order. An example of a letter without both forms is the German ß (ess-tsett), which exists only in minuscule. When capitalized it normally becomes two letters ("SS"), but the ß letter may be used as a capital to prevent confusion in special cases, such as names. This is because ß was originally a ligature of the two letters "ſs" (a long s and an s), both of which become "S" when capitalized. It later evolved into a letter in its own right. (ß is also occasionally referred to as a ligature of "sz", which recalls the way this consonant was pronounced in some medieval German dialects. The original spelling sz is preserved in Hungarian and pronounced [s].)

Languages have capitalization rules to determine whether majuscules or minuscules are to be used in a given context. In English, capital letters are used as the first letter of a sentence, a proper noun, or a proper adjective, and for initials or abbreviations. The first-person pronoun "I" and the interjection "O" are also capitalized. Lower-case letters are normally used for all other purposes. There are however situations where further capitalization may be used to give added emphasis, for example in headings and titles or to pick out certain words (often using small capitals). There are also a few pairs of words of different meanings whose only difference is capitalization of the first letter. Other languages vary in their use of capitals. For example, in German the first letter of all nouns is capitalized, while in Romance languages the names of days of the week, months of the year, and adjectives of nationality, religion and so on generally begin with a lower-case letter.

Demonstrating the use of a composing stick in front of upper and lower type cases at the International Printing Museum in Carson, CA.


Case comparison

Here is a comparison of the majuscule and minuscule versions of each letter used in the English language. The exact representation will vary according to the font used.

Upper Case: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Lower Case: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z


Example of minuscule text Codex Ebnerianus (c. 1100)

Originally alphabets were written entirely in capital letters, spaced between well-defined upper and lower bounds. When written quickly with a pen, these tended to turn into rounder and much simpler forms, like uncials. It is from these that the first minuscule hands developed, the half-uncials and cursive minuscule, which no longer stay bound between a pair of lines.[1] These in turn formed the foundations for the Carolingian minuscule script, developed by Alcuin for use in the court of Charlemagne, which quickly spread across Europe.

European languages, except for Ancient Greek and Latin, did not make the case distinction before about 1300. In Latin, papyrii from Herculaneum dating before 79 have been found which include lower-case letters a, b, d, h, p, and r. According to papyrologist Knut Kleve, "The theory, then, that the lower-case letters have been developed from the fifth century uncials and the ninth century Carolingian miniscules seems to be wrong."[2]

Both "majuscule" and "minuscule" letters existed, but the printing press had not yet been invented, and a given handwritten document could use either one size/style or the other. However, before about 1700 literacy was very low in Europe and the Americas, hence even handwriting was not used or understood by more than about 1% of people[citation needed]. Therefore, there was not any motivation to use both upper case and lower case letters in the same document as all documents were used by only a small number of scholars.

The timeline of writing in Western Europe can be divided into four eras:

  • Greek majuscule (9th – 3rd century B.C.) in contrast to the Greek uncial script (3rd century B.C. – 12 century A.D.) and the later Greek minuscule
  • Roman majuscule (7th century B.C. – 4th century A.D.) in contrast to the Roman uncial (4th – 8th century B.C.), Roman Half Uncial, and minuscule
  • Carolingian majuscule (4th – 8th century A.D.) in contrast to the Carolingian minuscule (around 780 – 12th century)
  • Gothic majuscule (13th and 14th century), in contrast to the early Gothic (end of 11th to 13th century), Gothic (14th century), and late Gothic (16th century) minuscules.

Traditionally, certain letters were rendered differently according to a set of rules. In particular, those letters that began sentences or nouns were made larger and often written in a distinct script. There was no fixed capitalization system until the early 18th century. The English language eventually dropped the rule for nouns, while the German language kept it.

Similar developments have taken place in other alphabets. The lower-case script for the Greek alphabet has its origins in the 7th century and acquired its quadrilinear form in the 8th century. Over time, uncial letter forms were increasingly mixed into the script. The earliest dated Greek lower-case text is the Uspenski Gospels (MS 461) in the year 835[citation needed]. The modern practice of capitalizing the first letter of every sentence seems to be imported (and is rarely used when printing Ancient Greek materials even today).

The Samaritan alphabet also had lower-case letters, making it relatively unusual among abjads such as Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic, which tend to be written without case.

Simplified relationship between various scripts leading to the development of modern lower case of standard Latin alphabet and that of the modern variants, fraktur (used in Germany until recently) and gaelic (Ireland). Several scripts coexisted such as half-uncial and uncial, which derive from Roman cursive and greek uncial, and visigothic, Merovingian (Luxeuil variant here) and Beneventan. The carolingian scrip was the basis for blackletter and humanist minuscule. What is commonly called "gothic writing" is technically called blackletter (here Textualis quadrata) and is completely unrelated to visigothic script.
The letter j is i with a flourish, u and v are the same letter in early scripts and were used depending on their position in insular half-uncial and caroline minuscule and later scripts, w is a ligature of vv, in insular the rune wynn is used as a w (three other runes in use were the thorn (þ), ʻféʼ (ᚠ) as an abbreviation for cattle/goods and maðr (ᛘ) for man).
The letters y and z were very rarely used, in particular þ was written identically to y so y was dotted to avoid confusion, the dot was adopted for i only after late-caroline (protgothic), in benevetan script the macron abbreviation featured a dot above.
Lost variants such as r rotunda, ligatures and scribal abbreviation marks are omitted, long s is shown when no terminal s (surviving variant) is present.
Humanist script was the basis for Venetian types which changed little until today, such as Times New Roman (a serifed typeface))


Movable type on a composing stick, lying on a lower case with larger boxes for more common letters.

The term lower case originated in the early days of the printing press used with movable type in letterpress printing. The individual type blocks used in hand typesetting are stored in shallow wooden or metal drawers, known as cases, with subdivisions into compartments known as boxes to store each individual letter. In many countries the majuscules and minuscules are stored separately, with a pair of boxes for each typeface at a specific size. For typesetting, the two cases are taken out of the storage rack and placed on a rack on the compositor's desk. By convention, the case containing the capitals (and small capitals) stands at a steeper angle at the back of the desk, with the case for the small letters, punctuation and spaces, at a shallower angle below it to the front of the desk, hence upper and lower case.[3] The term "upper case" is a backformation and not used by printers to classify capital letters.[citation needed] The upper case contained accented letters, numbers and capital ligatures in addition to capital letters and comes from the antique age of setting type for printing presses, when printers kept the type for these letters in the upper drawers of a desk or in the upper type case, while keeping the type for the more frequently-used smaller letters in the lower type case within easy reach.

Various patterns of cases are available, often with the compartments for lower-case letters varying in size according to the frequency of use of letters, so that the commonest letters are grouped together in larger boxes at the centre of the case.[3] The compositor takes the letter blocks from the compartments and places them in a composing stick, working from left to right and placing the letters upside down with the nick to the top, then sets the assembled type in a galley.

The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Advanced Proportional Principles (reprinted 1952) indicates that this usage of "case" (as the box or frame used by a compositor in the printing trade) was first used in 1588. Originally one large case was used for each typeface, then "divided cases", pairs of cases for upper and lower case, were introduced in the region of today's Belgium by 1563, England by 1588, and France before 1723. Though pairs of cases were used in English-speaking countries and many European countries in Germany and Scandinavia the single case continued in use.[3]

For paleographers, a majuscule script is any script in which the letters have very few or very short ascenders and descenders, or none at all (for example, the majuscule scripts used in the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209, or the Book of Kells).

The word minuscule is often spelled miniscule, by association with the unrelated word miniature and the prefix mini-. This has traditionally been regarded as a spelling mistake (since minuscule is derived from the word minus[4]), but is now so common that some dictionaries tend to accept it as a nonstandard or variant spelling.[5] However, miniscule is still less likely to be used for lower-case letters.

Other forms of case

The distinction between hiragana and katakana in Japanese is similar to, but not the same as, case; it may also be considered analogous to upright and italics characters. While each sound has both a hiragana and katakana, any given word will use only one of the two scripts normally. If a word is written with hiragana, it is not normally considered correct to write it with katakana, and vice versa. However, katakana may be substituted for hiragana or kanji to add emphasis or make them stand out, similar to the use of capitalization or italics in English.

Also similar to case is recent usage in Georgian, where some authors use isolated letters from the Asomtavruli alphabet within a text otherwise written in Mkhedruli in a fashion that is reminiscent of modern usage of letter case in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets.


In scripts with a case distinction, lower case is generally used for the majority of text; capitals are used for capitalization, acronyms, medial capitals, and emphasis (in some languages).

Capital letters were sometimes used for typographical emphasis in text made on a typewriter. However, long spans of Latin-alphabet text in all upper-case are harder to read because of the absence of the ascenders and descenders found in lower-case letters, which can aid recognition. With the advent of modern computer editing technology and the Internet, emphasis is usually indicated by use of a single word Capital, italic, or bold font, similar to what has long been common practice in print. In typesetting, when an acronym or initialism requires a string of upper-case letters, it is frequently set in small capitals, to avoid overemphasizing the word in mostly lower-case running text. In electronic communications, it is often considered very poor "netiquette" to type in all capitals, because it can be harder to read and because it is seen as tantamount to shouting. Indeed, this is the oft-used name for the practice. Larry Trask states that "it is possible to write an entire word or phrase in capital letters in order to emphasize it", but adds that "on the whole, though, it is preferable to express emphasis, not with capital letters, but with italics."[6]

Capitalization is the writing of a word with its first letter in uppercase and the remaining letters in lowercase. Capitalization rules vary by language and are often quite complex, but in most modern languages that have capitalization, the first word of every sentence is capitalized, as are all proper nouns. Some languages, such as German, capitalize the first letter of all nouns; this was previously common in English as well. (See the article on capitalization for a detailed list of norms).

In English, a variety of case styles are used in various circumstances:

  • Capitalization in English, in terms of the general orthographic rules independent of context (e.g., title vs heading vs text), is universally standardized for formal writing. For example, it is universal to begin a sentence with a cap, and to cap proper nouns, wherever formal orthography is in force. (Informal communication, such as texting, IM, or a handwritten sticky note, may not bother, of course; but that's because its users usually do not expect it to be formal.)
    • Sentence case: The most common in English prose. Generally equivalent to the baseline universal standard of formal English orthography mentioned above; that is, only the first word is capitalized, except for proper nouns and other words which are generally capitalized by a more specific rule.
    • Title case: All words are capitalized except for certain subsets defined by rules that are not universally standardized. The standardization is only at the level of house styles and individual style manuals. (See further explanation below at Headings and publication titles.)
    • ALL CAPS: Only capital letters are used.
    • small caps: Capital letters are used which are the size of the lower-case "x". Slightly larger small caps can be used in a Mixed Case fashion. Used for initialisms, names, mathematical entities, computer commands in printed text, and other situations where a given phrase needs to be distinguished from the main text.
    • lowercase only: Sometimes used for artistic effect, such as in poetry. Also commonly seen in computer commands and SMS language, to avoid pressing the shift key in order to speed typing.

In some traditional forms of poetry, capitalization has been conventionally used as a marker to indicate the beginning of a line of verse independent of any other grammatical feature.

Headings and publication titles

In English-language publications, varying conventions are used for capitalizing words in publication titles and headlines, including chapter and section headings. The rules differ substantially between individual house styles. The main examples are (from most to least capitals used):

Example Rule
The Vitamins Are In My Fresh California Raisins "Start case" — capitalization of all words, regardless of the part of speech
The Vitamins Are in My Fresh California Raisins Capitalization of all words, except for articles, prepositions, and conjunctions
The Vitamins are in My Fresh California Raisins Capitalization of all words, except for articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and forms of to be
The Vitamins are in my Fresh California Raisins Capitalization of all words, except for closed-class words
The Vitamins are in my fresh California Raisins Capitalization of all nouns
The vitamins are in my fresh California raisins Sentence case – Capitalization of only the first word, proper nouns and as dictated by other specific English rules
the vitamins are in my fresh California raisins Mid-sentence case – capitalization of proper nouns only
the vitamins are in my fresh california raisins All-lowercase letters (unconventional in formal English)

Among U.S. book publishers (but not newspaper publishers), it is a common typographic practice to capitalize "important" words in titles and headings. This is an old form of emphasis, similar to the more modern practice of using a larger or boldface font for titles. Most capitalize all words except for closed-class words, or articles, prepositions and conjunctions. Some capitalize longer prepositions such as "between", but not shorter ones. Some capitalize only nouns, others capitalize all words. This family of typographic conventions is usually called title case. Of these various styles, only the practice of capitalizing nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives but not articles, conjunctions or prepositions (though some styles except long prepositions) is considered correct in formal American English writing, according to most style guides, though others are found in less formal settings.

As for whether hyphenated words are capitalized not only at the beginning but also after the hyphen, there is no universal standard; variation occurs in the wild and among house styles (e.g., The Letter-Case Rule in My Book; Short-term Follow-up Care for Burns). Traditional copyediting makes a distinction between "temporary compounds" (such as many nonce [novel instance] compound modifiers), in which every word is capped (e.g., How This Particular Author Chose To Style His Autumn-Apple-Picking Heading), and "permanent compounds", which are terms that, although compound and hyphenated, are so well established that dictionaries enter them as headwords (e.g., Short-term Follow-up Care for Burns).

The convention followed by many British publishers (including scientific publishers, like Nature, magazines, like The Economist and New Scientist, and newspapers, like The Guardian and The Times) is to use sentence-style capitalization in titles and headlines, where capitalization follows the same rules that apply for sentences. This convention is sometimes called sentence case. It is also widely used in the United States, especially in newspaper publishing, bibliographic references and library catalogues. Examples of global publishers whose English-language house styles prescribe sentence-case titles and headings include the International Organization for Standardization.

In creative typography, such as music record covers and other artistic material, all styles are commonly encountered, including all-lowercase letters and mixed case (StudlyCaps).

One British style guide mentions a form of title case: R.M. Ritter's "Oxford Manual of Style" (2002) suggests capitalizing "the first word and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, but generally not articles, conjunctions and short prepositions".[7][8]


Some sentence cases are not used in standard English, but are common in computer programming, as well as in product branding and in other specialised fields:

  • CamelCase: First letter of each word is capitalized, spaces and punctuation removed. If the very first letter is capitalized, as in "CamelCase" (or "PowerPoint"), the term "upper camel case" may be used; this is also known as "Pascal case" or "Bumpy case". "Lower camel case" describes a variation, as in "camelCase" (or "iPod" or "eBay"), in which the very first letter is in lower case.
  • Start case: First letter of each word capitalized, spaces separate words. All words including short articles and prepositions start with a capital letter. For example: "This Is A Start Case".
  • Snake case: punctuation is removed and spaces are replaced by single underscores. Normally the letters share the same case (either UPPER_CASE_EMBEDDED_UNDERSCORE or lower_case_embedded_underscore) but the case can be mixed.
  • Studly caps: Mixed case, as in "StUdLyCaPs", with no semantic or syntactic significance to the use of the capitals. Sometimes only vowels are upper-case, at other times upper and lower case are alternated, but often it is just random. The name comes from the fact that it was used to imply coolness on the part of the writer, although nowadays it is more often used ironically. (It is also used to mock the violation of standard English case conventions by marketers in the naming of computer software packages, even when there is no technical requirement to do so—e.g., Sun Microsystems' naming of a windowing system NeWS.)

Case folding

The conversion of letter case in a string is common practice in computer applications, for instance to make case-insensitive comparisons. Many high-level programming languages provide simple methods for case folding, at least for the ASCII character set.


In word processing

Most modern word processors provide automated case folding with a simple click or keystroke. For example, in Microsoft Office Word, there is a dialog box for toggling the selected text through UPPERCASE, then lowercase, then Title Case (actually start caps; exception words must be lowercased individually). The keystroke shift-F3 does the same thing.

Adding another option, "smart title case", in which certain classes of words would be exceptions and remain lowercase, is an obvious opportunity for feature improvement in future versions. Although some words would inevitably be borderline members of the exception subset and could be ignored (e.g., long prepositions such as without and between]), there is a core population of words that everyone can agree should be programmed to remain lowercase (e.g., a, an, the, of, for).

In programming

In some forms of BASIC there are two methods for case folding:

 UpperA$ = UCASE$("a")
 LowerA$ = LCASE$("A")

C and C++, as well as any C-like language that conforms to its standard library, provide these functions in the file ctype.h:

 char upperA = toupper('a');
 char lowerA = tolower('A');

Case folding is different with different character sets. In ASCII or EBCDIC, case can be folded in the following way, in C:

#define toupper(c) (islower(c) ? (c) - 'a' + 'A' : (c))
#define tolower(c) (isupper(c) ? (c) - 'A' + 'a' : (c))

This only works because the letters of upper and lower cases are spaced out equally. In ASCII they are consecutive, whereas with EBCDIC they are not; nonetheless the upper case letters are arranged in the same pattern and with the same gaps as are the lower case letters, so the technique still works.

Some computer programming languages offer facilities for converting text to a form in which all words are first-letter capitalized. Visual Basic calls this "proper case"; Python calls it "title case". This differs from usual title casing conventions, such as the English convention in which minor words are not capitalized.

Unicode case folding and script identification

Unicode defines case folding through the three case-mapping properties of each character: uppercase, lowercase and titlecase. These properties relate all characters in scripts with differing cases to the other case variants of the character.

As briefly discussed in Unicode Technical Note #26,[9] "In terms of implementation issues, any attempt at a unification of Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic would wreak havoc [and] make casing operations an unholy mess, in effect making all casing operations context sensitive [...]". In other words, while the shapes of letters like A, B, E, H, K, M, O, P, T, X, Y and so on are shared between the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets (and small differences in their canonical forms may be considered to be of a merely typographical nature), it would still be problematic for a multilingual character set or a font to provide only a single codepoint for, say, uppercase letter B, as this would make it quite difficult for a wordprocessor to change that single uppercase letter to one of the three different choices for the lower case letter, b (Latin), β (Greek), or в (Cyrillic). Without letter case, a 'unified European alphabet'—such as ABБCГDΔΕZЄЗFΦGHIИJ...Z, with an appropriate subset for each language—is feasible; but considering letter case, it becomes very clear that these alphabets are rather distinct sets of symbols.

Special cases

  • The German letter ß exists only in lowercase (but see Capital ß), and is capitalized as "SS".
  • The Greek letter Σ has two different lowercase forms: "ς" in word-final position and "σ" elsewhere.
  • The Cyrillic letter Ӏ usually has only a capital form, which is also used in lowercase text.
  • Unlike most Latin-script languages that use uppercase "I" and lowercase "i", Turkish has dotted and dotless I independent of case.

Related phenomena

Similar orthographic conventions are used for emphasis or following language-specific rules, including:

See also


  1. ^ David Harris. The Calligrapher's Bible. 0764156152
  2. ^ Kleve, Knut (1994). "The Latin Papyri in Herculaneum" in Proceedings of the 20th International Congress of Papyrologists, Copenhagen, 23–29 August 1992. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. 
  3. ^ a b c Type Cases, David Bolton, The Alembic Press, 1997, retrieved April 23, 2007
  4. ^ Charlton T. Lewis, minusculus
  5. ^ Houghton Mifflin (2000). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed ed.). Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-82517-4. http://www.bartleby.com/61/69/M0316900.html. 
  6. ^ Sussex.ac.uk
  7. ^ Oxford Manual of Style, R. M. Ritter ed., Oxford University Press, 2002
  8. ^ Similar (to Oxford manual of Style) guide at AdminSecret
  9. ^ Unicode Technical Note #26: On the Encoding of Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, and Han, retrieved April 23, 2007

External links

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