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Sentence "FRAGILE" on the wood written in all caps

Should we avoid writing in all caps?

Explore strategies to enhance readability and the user experience by avoiding all caps in digital communication

Uppercase reading is more difficult to read since the forms of all uppercase letters are rectangular, and readers are not used to reading text in this way. As a result, it is more difficult to scan, less efficient, and hence less readable.

However, all caps are accepted for words that do not need reading, such as logos and acronyms.

One of the simplest methods to improve your website’s content is to use consistent capitalization guidelines. Above all, do not use all capital letters (commonly known as all caps) in your headings and text.

Uppercase text slows down reading speed

Studies have indeed shown that reading uppercase words can slow down reading speed compared to lowercase words. Specifically, one study, The Reading Speed of Elementary School Students on the All Text Written with Capital and Lowercase Letters (2019) found that the reading speed of text written with lowercase letters is more than 13% higher than the reading speed of text written with capital letters across all grade levels examined.

This difference was statistically significant, indicating that lowercase letters facilitate faster reading speeds. The study involved primary school students and utilized a quantitative research method, analyzing the number of words read per minute. The findings align with previous research suggesting that lowercase letters enhance visual perception and readability, leading to quicker reading times. Therefore, it is recommended to use lowercase letters in texts to facilitate reading and increase reading speed, especially considering the impact on both print and screen reading environments.

In the article 100 Things You Should Know About People: #19 – It’s a Myth That All Capital Letters Are Inherently Harder to Readfrom Web Archive, Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. wrote:

You read by anticipating the letters that will be in words, and then recognizing those letters. All capital (uppercase) letters are slower for people to read, but only because they aren’t used to them. Mixed case text is only faster to read than uppercase letters because of practice. Most of what you read is mixed case, and so you are used to it. If people practice reading text that is in all capital letters they can get to the point where they are reading that text as fast as they usually read mixed case. This doesn’t mean you should start using uppercase or capital letters for all of your text. People are not used to reading that way, so it will slow them down, and these days it’s perceived as shouting. But now you know that uppercase letters are not inherently harder to read.

In another great article (20 years old but still worth reading), The Science of Word Recognition, from Web Archive, Kevin Larson discusses the science of word recognition in typography.

  • Word recognition models: the article explains that there are several models of word recognition, including the oldest model, which suggests that words are recognized as complete units. This model is no longer considered viable, and most research supports the idea that words are recognized by recognizing individual letters within the word.
  • Boum’s research: the article references research by Bouma (1973) that found that subjects are more successful at naming letters to the right of fixation than to the left. This data supports the idea that we tend to fixate just to the left of the middle of a word.
  • Word shape: the word shape model is supported by several pieces of evidence, including the Word Superiority Effect, where words are recognized more accurately than letters in short periods of time.

    Another piece of evidence for the word shape model is that lowercase text is generally read faster than uppercase text due to the unique patterns of ascending, descending, and neutral characters in lowercase text.

    Visual outlines of how the eye recognizes letter shapes
    Visual outlines of how the eye recognizes letter shapes

    The article also mentions that misspellings consistent with word shape are less likely to be noticed during proofreading, as they maintain the familiar shape of the word.

  • Contextual information: the article notes that contextual information, such as the surrounding text, is also used to help recognize words during ordinary reading.

The effect of uppercase text on word recognition

The impact of uppercase text on word shape recognition is nuanced and involves several factors, including reading habits, the role of letter shape versus word shape, and the effects of alternating case.

  • Reading habits and proficiency: lowercase text is generally read faster than uppercase text due to practice effects. Readers are more proficient with lowercase text since they encounter it more frequently. Over time, reading speed increases when reading uppercase text to match that of lowercase text.
  • Role of letter shape vs. word shape: studies have shown that the effect of word shape on recognizing misspellings is largely driven by letter shape rather than word shape. For instance, misspellings that maintain the same letter shape are more likely to go unnoticed than those that change the letter shape, regardless of the word shape consistency. This suggests that the distinctive features of individual letters play a significant role in word recognition and error detection.
  • Effects of alternating case: text written in alternating case (e.g., AlTeRnAtInG) is more challenging to read than text in all-lowercase or all-uppercase forms. This difficulty arises because alternating cases disrupt the familiar pattern of word shapes, making it harder for readers to recognize the word as a whole. However, the impact of alternating cases on reading speed and accuracy is not solely attributed to word shape. Both words and pseudowords experience decreased reading speed with alternating cases, indicating that the issue lies with the disruption of familiar letter sequences rather than specific word shapes.
  • Neural network modeling: recent advancements in neural network modeling have shed light on the complexities of reading processes. These models suggest that the human brain processes reading through parallel letter recognition, where billions of neurons work together to identify and understand words based on familiar letter sequences.

In summary, while uppercase text does affect word shape recognition, the primary influence comes from the distinctiveness of letter shapes rather than the overall word shape. The challenge posed by alternating cases highlights the importance of familiar letter sequences in reading efficiency and accuracy.

Why all caps are perceived as yelling

The idea that using capital letters is the same as shouting or yelling has its roots in typographic and historical practices. Professor Paul Luna of the typography and graphic communication department at the University of Reading claims that all capitals have been employed for thousands of years to express grandeur, pomposity, or aesthetic seriousness. It has also been used to write angry or yelling statements.

Examples from history include the 1940s biography of Philippa Schuyler, which employed all capital letters to yell, and the 1970s usage of all capital letters by Robert Moses to convey rage at a book draft. This concept is also evident in posts from bulletin boards and online newsgroups from around 1984, when people remark that capitalizing entire phrases sounds like yelling.

Furthermore, the 1880 book The Standard Speaker and Elocutionist has a section headed SHOUTING STYLE, which suggests that shouting emphasis in writing was represented by all capitals.

This practice persisted over a number of eras, such as the introduction of networked computers in the 1980s, when messages written entirely in capital letters started to be connected to yelling and other impolite or contentious activities on social media. This reading is consistent with previous recorded records from at least a century ago, indicating that even in 1984, there was disagreement over the appropriate use of emphasis or screaming in texts.

Moreover, typographic expert Chris McGrath clarified that all capitals offer the most visibility possible within a specified area, similar to the feeling of being aware of a yell instead of its subtlety. This characteristic contributes to the perception that all capitals are used to yell, particularly in digital communications where the lack of tone and nonverbal cues could mask the meaning of the text.

Even though all capitals have historically been associated with shouting, individual interpretations might differ depending on the sender’s familiarity and the communication’s context. The significance of taking into account the whole content and interaction between communicators is highlighted by the fact that some people perceive all capitals as a kind of emphasis rather than a sign of yelling.

Alternatives to using all caps for emphasis

Instead of using all capitals, consider the following options for emphasizing text:

Use italics for emphasis

Italics are a widely recognized method for emphasizing text. They are simple, elegant, and understood across various media. For example, this is an emphasized text would appear, as this is an emphasized text in italics.

Use bold formatting

Bold text is another effective way to emphasize key words or phrases. It stands out against regular text and draws attention to the content. For instance, this is an emphasized text would appear as this is an emphasized text in bold.

To emphasize text in HTML use the <strong> element. The <strong> HTML element is of strong importance for its contents. This means it’s used to indicate that the text within the <strong> tags carries significant importance, seriousness, or urgency. Typically, browsers render the contents of <strong> elements in bold type, although it’s important to note that <strong> should not be used solely for applying bold styling. Instead, it signifies a higher level of importance compared to the surrounding content.

Small caps

Instead of using full capital letters for emphasis, small caps can provide a more graceful and less overwhelming alternative. Small caps are smaller than normal capital letters and are often used in headings or to emphasize words within a sentence.

An example of text that includes small caps could be: The New Yorker magazine uses small caps for acronyms longer than three letters, such as U.S., W.H.O., and nato.

This example demonstrates the use of small caps for acronyms, highlighting how small caps can be utilized to distinguish certain words or phrases within a text without resorting to all uppercase letters, which might imply unnecessary emphasis.

Employ strategic placement and punctuation

Certain parts can occasionally be organically emphasized by the sequence of words inside a phrase or the punctuation used. One way to highlight words or ideas is to place them at the front or end of a phrase, use commas or dashes sparingly, or change the length of sentences.

Here’s an example that illustrates the emphasis created by the placement of words and the use of punctuation:

Original sentence: She went to the store to buy some apples, bananas, and oranges.

Emphasized version 1: To buy some apples, bananas, and oranges, she went to the store.

Emphasized version 2: She went to the store – to buy some apples, bananas, and oranges.

In the first emphasized version, the phrase to buy some apples, bananas, and oranges is moved to the beginning of the sentence to emphasize the purpose of the trip. In the second version, the use of a dash draws attention to the act of going to the store for a specific purpose. These examples demonstrate how the placement of words and the use of punctuation can naturally emphasize certain elements within a sentence.

Avoid overemphasis

Regardless of the emphasizing method chosen, it’s crucial to avoid overemphasizing text. Excessive use of any emphasis technique can dilute its effectiveness and potentially distract or confuse readers.

Considerations for screen readers

For people who are blind or use screen readers, all caps text can be read out letter-by-letter rather than as whole words, making it harder to understand.

Screen reader can read text that is written only in capital letters in a completely different way. See an example of this in the video below. Pay attention to how the text in the button and in the link is read.

When applying all caps through a style or text effect rather than actual capitalization, ensure that screen-reading devices and other assistive technologies can interpret the text correctly. This approach allows users to override the style if needed, preserving accessibility.

English capitalization guidelines

Finally, it is worth mentioning the general rules of capitalization in English:

  • First word of a sentence: always capitalize the first word of a sentence, regardless of whether it is a noun, verb, adjective, or another part of speech.
  • Proper nouns: capitalize all proper nouns, including names of people, places, organizations, and titles, when used as part of a name. This includes the names of specific continents, countries, states, cities, regions, monuments, landmarks, and natural features.
  • Titles of works: when titling books, articles, movies, art, and other works, capitalize the first word of the title and (if applicable) the subtitle. Also, capitalize all nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and subordinating conjunctions within the title. Use lowercase for articles (the, a, an), prepositions, and coordinating conjunctions.
  • Quotations: the first word of a quotation is capitalized if it is a complete sentence. However, if the quotation is an incomplete sentence or a phrase within a sentence, it does not need to be capitalized.
  • List items after a colon: do not capitalize the first item in a list that follows a colon unless it is a proper noun or the first word of a sentence.
  • National anthems and titles: do not capitalize the national anthem or the first word of titles unless it is a proper noun or the first word of a sentence.

These rules aim to maintain consistency and clarity in written communication, distinguish between proper nouns and common nouns, and highlight the beginning of sentences and quotations.

Does capitalization affect SEO?

On-page SEO capitalization, such as the use of all caps in title tags or headers, does not affect SEO performance or ranking.

Google, Bing, and possibly other search engines do not consider case sensitivity (based on our testing) when it comes to keywords. This means that the case of the letters in a keyword does not affect the search results. For instance, searching for SEO expert Philadelphia and SEO Expert Philadelphia will yield the same results.

But one thing that matters a lot in SEO is the user experience. Better engagement metrics might result from visitor retention when content is presented properly and is easy to read. Varying your capitalization can make your site appear less professional, which could increase the number of people who leave.

There are no explicit legal requirements or regulations mandating the use of all caps in digital communications. However, utilizing all capitals to make some content more noticeable has become standard procedure in legal agreements, especially in areas relating to warranty disclaimers, limitations of responsibility, and privacy policies. This tradition has persisted into the digital era and stretches back to the early days of written agreements.

Conclusion

In summary, while all caps can be useful in certain contexts, such as informal communication or emphasizing a single word, it is generally best to avoid using all caps in most writing situations due to their potential negative impact on legibility, emphasis, and netiquette.

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