A lot of writers seem to think some words are capitalized because they are important. For instance, author Gloria Watkins uses the pen name “bell hooks.” She has been quoted as saying she uses lower case because the most important or significant aspect of her work is the substance of her books, “not who I am.”

Nope, that’s not how it works. We capitalize a name to signal the reader that we’re talking about a specific person, place, or organization, not how important (or unimportant) it is. The signals of capitalization and punctuation make your writing easier to read. We’re so used to seeing those signals that we register them without even realizing it.

When a writer ignores those signals or sends the wrong ones, sentences can get confusing.

You run into this a lot with Internet discussion forums, where people give themselves lower-case handles like “crazy fusilli” or “mambo dogface to the banana patch,” and take great offense if any of those words are ever capitalized. So you end up with comments like, “I think crazy fusilli is wrong about unripe fruit because mambo dogface to the banana patch hasn’t had any problem with it.”

As I wrote back on New Year’s Eve, people should be addressed by the names they prefer. But that doesn’t mean we’re bound by their quirky typography, just as we aren’t obligated to write Starbucks in all upper-case letters or Amazon in all lower-case letters.

For words other than names, a lot of writers have the opposite problem, capitalizing with abandon.

If your company sells baseball bats, the product is obviously important to you. But they are still baseball bats, not Baseball Bats. If you sell a model with a specific brand name such as Louisville Slugger or Kren’s Special, then those proper nouns get capitalized, but “baseball bats” stays in lower case.

You may decide that you don’t care, that you’re going to reproduce lower case names and upper case Important Things anyhow. No one can stop you. Just be aware that you are choosing to make life harder for your readers.

One rule is absolute, however: Sentences start with capital letters, even if the first word is iPod, eBay, or Gloria Watkins’ pen name.

Where did all this confusion come from? Because English is a Germanic language, and the Germans love to capitalize. In fact, Germans capitalize every single noun. It took a long time for English to shake the habit. That’s why, if you look at English writing  from 200 or 300 years ago, you’ll see sentences like this: We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the General Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.

But that’s sooooooo 18th century. We’ve declared our independence from the German language as well as the British government.

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