By their words you shall know them

Apr 11 2012 by Janet Howd Print This Article

A literacy campaign currently being headed by London's Evening Standard newspaper is attracting funding from rich and poor alike because, being able to read easily is crucial to the future well being of any child.

Reading is deciphering a code: a code that should be made as simple to crack as possible. Yet even those who have learned to read densely worded texts with ease now find that having to pick up on the meaning of the plethora of acronyms that litter current reading matter takes an unnecessary amount of time.

What's more, to retain that meaning as the eyes scroll down a page or a screen, requires an effort of recall which would not be necessary if the words the acronyms referred to were set out in full.

Capital letters standing taller than any other in Roman script have (with the exception of specific names and scientific formulae) traditionally denoted places where a flow of thought regains momentum after a natural breathing point or signified the introduction of a new idea. These days, however, the fashion for setting capitals up as stand-ins for new concepts causes even the most able reader to balk at their presence and feel a resistance reading on.

When print setting was labour intensive - each letter having to be put in place by hand - an acronymic shorthand had obvious time and money saving advantages. But now that computers can set out any font, translate into any language, spell check, and correct grammatical blunders in an instant, what value do acronyms add?

They don't save reading time, as most readers have to look back more than once to be reminded of the meaning they imply. And they certainly don't save speaking time, since the speaker or a facilitator, has to jump in and explain their meaning while any listener has to take extra time to comprehend that acronyms' provenance - plus retaining its meaning throughout the whole exchange.

What are we doing to ourselves? On the one hand bemoaning the lax language use that texting is thought to introduce - yet where complex information is meant to be being passed on engaging in this senseless practice of lengthening the time it takes to get the picture.

And that last word introduces yet another reason for not supporting Roman capitals when used in this way. Behind their columns lurks as much menace to metaphor - the imperial force of language - as that posed by the senators who plotted to exterminate Julius Caesar and the imperial force of Rome.

Capital letters do not induce a fascination with language. Only fully-formed words do that. And only fully-formed phrases make that language easily digestible.

"I remember a certain luscious roll he gave to such phrases. . .as if the words were something real in his mouth, and delicious to taste." (David Copperfield)

We human beings are the only species that have an ability to relish words. To capitalise on that amazing capacity, capital letters should be returned to the word-building sites they came from, and - except for the most compelling of reasons - only be selected to head up segments of sense that can be combined to create palatable and satisfying stories.

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About The Author

Janet Howd
Janet Howd

Janet Howd is a voice coach who works with corporate, academic, legal, theatrical and private clients in the UK, North America, Australia and Europe.