Friday, January 25, 2008


January 25, 2008

It is a small but not insignificant recent change in written English that in Britain the newspapers have started spelling acronyms in lower case with capital initial instead of all in caps. The Universities and Colleges Employers Association and the the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are not UCEA and DEFRA, but (at least fairly often) Ucea and Defra. And in Times Higher Education magazine, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is now Hefce. This only applies to one of the two subclasses of what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language chapter on lexical word formation (chapter 19) calls initialisms: it applies to the acronyms, not the abbreviations. Nobody calls the Science and Technology Facilities Council "Sftc", because you don't say "sftc" (could anyone?), you say "S F T C". Acronyms are more like words than abbreviations are, and the developing convention recognizes that.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 25, 2008 10:38 AM
That's been the style in Italy for a number of years, and I have to say I like it. Strings of caps, even small caps, shout out too loud from the printed page.

(The last three sentences confuse me, though. Surely many, reading aloud a sentence like "Call the Sftc," would say call the sefftsee.)

In any case what's happening is a confusion of language seen and heard, and any such synesthesia can only be a good thing. Well, "synesthesia" isn't the right word, of course; that refers to sense impressions; what I mean is an intellectual impression formed by two fairly distinct sensory impressions working in tandem. There must be a word for such a concept...


George Mattingly said...

As a typographer I'm not bothered by acronyms in all uppercase, which I was trained to ALWAYS set as small caps. Words set entirely in large caps look ugly to me. I guess I "see" rather than "hear" the printed word, so they don't "shout" at me. When I published Ted Berrigan's selected poems, So Going Around Cities, in 1980, we argued about just this. Ted said: "I want these words to command attention, like apartment buildings in Manhattan."

Maybe the right word is sensophrenia?

Charles Shere said...

Ah, but there you are, George, your word "always" appears here in full caps and not small caps (and what is the term for caps-not-small?). You have to do a bit of coding to get small caps. In the past I've occasionally used a capital initial on an otherwise grammatically-not-to-be-capitalized word, just to led that word a bit of Majesty; now I know why.

And, alas, control-command-D doesn't return a definition for "sensophrenia," but I like the word, whatever it means exactly...