ALL CAPS and Social Meaning:
Every computer user knows that the use of "all caps," that is, text in all capital letters, is understood to mean text that the writer wants to be read as something yelled or screamed. So if I write you an e-mail telling you to "PLEASE CALL ME ON MY CELL PHONE INSTEAD OF MY HOME PHONE," to pick a random example, you're likely to think I'm very upset. If I write the same message in lower case letters, you won't naturally draw that conclusion.

  I wonder, where did this come from? Is it just a social convention? If so, where did it originate? Alternatively -- or additionally -- does a psychological explanation exist for it? Capital letters generally are larger than lower-case letters. Do we intuitively associate expanded size with increased emotion, as if letters mirrored the dilated pupils of the fight-or-flight reaction?

  Okay, so it's kind of a random question. But does anyone know the answer?
Diego Baron:
All caps are more difficult to read. The eye scans more slowly and the brain takes more time to recognize each word. This gives each word a more impact and causes a little discomfort relative to mixed case. Just like having someone shout their message in your ear.
7.12.2005 1:30am
Bill Woody (mail) (www):
I know the "all-caps" as shouting idea was around in the early days of Usenet, though I don't know if it predates Usenet. I do remember when I was on Usenet back in '84-'85 that typing in all caps was considered the electronic equivalent of shouting.

It cannot come from much earlier than then--as back in the late 70's and early 80's there were a number of computer systems (such as the early TRS-80's) which did not have lower-case characters. (You could tell back then who had older systems and who had the newer-fangled systems with lower-case characters by if they'd post in all caps.)

But sadly I don't know where the tradition came from.
7.12.2005 1:31am
From Wikipedia: "[All caps fonts were] once an inevitable byproduct of using machines with limited support for lowercase text. . . but as full support of ASCII became standard, it became solely identified with "shouting" or attention-seeking behaviour."

Probably because of the name, over time "shouting" began to carry the other meanings we associate with shouting (i.e. anger, strong emotion).
7.12.2005 1:36am
Chris Lawrence (mail) (www):
The fairly basic explanation is that in pure text, it's really the only way to provide emphasis that doesn't require stuff like underscores and stars. "Rich" text (either in RTF - literally, "Rich Text Format" - or HTML form) is a relatively modern innovation in computing, dating from the early 1990s. I think the NeXT was the first system to natively support rich text formatting in email over the ARPANET/Internet.
7.12.2005 1:41am
Maniakes (mail) (www):
I seem to recall seeing ALL CAPS used in old comic books to represent shouting. I think this predates usenet.
7.12.2005 1:56am
I'd be surprised if we intuitively associate expanded size with increased emotion in and of itself, but it stands to reason that we would associate typographically distinct text with an attempt to convey a distinct tone of some kind or another, and the attempt to imply "large voice" by using "large letters" seems a fairly straightforward one. If I suddenly switched to a much smaller font size in the middle of some text, I expect the reader would probably infer that I was trying to convey quiet or unobtrusiveness or something similar, relying on the typographic metaphor, even though that particular convention is probably not widespread enough to be a learned convention.

At the same time, it seems to me that this is just one of several forms of typographical emphasis and, given that--at least until the relatively recent advent of html mail--most of the other such conentional forms (e.g., italic, bold, underscored type) were unavailable for e-mail messages, all caps was a fairly obvious and convenient choice. All caps has the further advantage (from the standpoint of the one using it) of being particularly visually distinct within a block of normal text, thus tending to draw the eye to it. (Which, in fact, looks to me like the motivation--rather than emotion--for much of the all caps e-mail I get: the reader wants to make sure the all-caps material is noticed, rather than glanced over)

To the extent (if any) that there's a particular "tradition" behind this, I suspect it certainly does predate Usenet. Comic books, for instance--a form which has much looser physical constraints on typography than typical books--tend to convey volume with larger letters, don't they?
7.12.2005 2:01am
Freddy Hill (mail):
It has bothered me well before internet, usenet and what-have-you. I used to work for IBM in the early 80's and had an employee who simply pressed the CAPS key and typed away his messages in the company email system (IBM, along with DEC and many others, had company-wide email in 1984).

I concluded at the time that what bothered me was the individual in question was too lazy to press on the shift key for proper names such as the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. There must be more to it than that, though. Since then I have received many many emails from people that take the opposite approach. they use lowercase for everything, even for proper names such as the united states of america. this bothers me as well, but not as much.
7.12.2005 2:01am
I believe the first post is on the right track. If I remember correctly, fluents readers actually recognize the outline of words. Because the outlines of uppercase letters don't differ as much from each other as lowercase letters, uppercase letters are harder to read.
7.12.2005 2:39am
Perseus (mail):
Orin Kerr asks: "Do we intuitively associate expanded size with increased emotion, as if letters mirrored the dilated pupils of the fight-or-flight reaction?"

Well, according to Burke, size that exceeds the ordinary standard of given a object induces fear or terror (the fight-or-flight response): "When we let out imaginations loose in romance, the ideas we naturally annex to that of size are those of tyranny, cruelty, injustice, and every thing horrid and abominable. We paint the giant ravaging the country, plundering the innocent traveller, and afterwards gorged with his half-living flesh..."
7.12.2005 2:39am
Jerry (www):
With regards to old comic books, that's an interesting point, but not because all caps were used for shouting. They were. But they were also used for everything else! The use of lower-case in comic books is a relatively recent phenomenon, generally assumed to have been made possible by higher quality printers.

Even a very recent Simpsons comic I have at hand is in all upper case, although it is emulating the older Barks-style Donald Duck. At least up until a few years ago, mixed-case in comics was used mostly in "high-end" comics, such as the Sandman.

So, upper case is not universally associated with yelling.

(Interestingly, though, they also tended to use a lot of exclamation points. I'm going through a reprint of the first issue of the X-Men, and in the first 11 pages not single sentence of the story ends in a period. If it isn't an ellipses or a question mark, it's an exclamation point--and most of them are exclamation points, even in the captions. If something needs to be yelled, they double up on the question marks or exclamation points, and/or add bold and/or italics.)
7.12.2005 2:55am
It is sort of a cultural detail among programmers and the early computer scene to despise typing and reading capitalized letters. (perhaps others share this opinion, but I don't claim to speak for them.)

e.g., even today programming languages are derided for having uppercase keywords.

I think, though, we've seen a morphing of the idea. Fifteen years ago it was explained to me "Don't type in all UPPERCASE. It's like shouting". Notice the "like". It's similar to shouting in that shouting is annoying to listen to and UPPERCASE is annoying to read.

Somewhere along the line, I started hearing people say "UPPERCASE is shouting".

This might be a selection effect/microcosm though, but it seems like one of those details that would easily morph as people strove to sound informed.
7.12.2005 3:26am
Brett A. Thomas (mail) (www):
I've been participating in electronic fora since 1984, when I got my first modem and set up a bulletin board system (BBS). It was in Savannah, GA, and I'm reasonably certain most of us weren't computer programmers, not in any official capacity. Just a bunch of hobbyists getting together. I don't think we had much of the early 80s computer culture in our subculture, and most of our conversational norms were developed ourselves.

Regardless, I believe it was fairly self evident that capital letters could be used for emphasis, and there was a general tendency to regard those who typed in all caps all the time (as some newbies for some reason find hard to avoid) as clueless.

I think the previous poster who suggested it had to do with the technological limitations of the time hit the nail on the head. There were no fonts and no emphasis. I don't believe when I began there was even a way to specify color in the software we used. More sophisticated users (like the real computer folks over on Usenet) at that time developed ideas like slashes /for italics/ or asterisks *for bold*, but those ideas certainly never made it to our little group. This group was simply of BBS operators and users, and we connect by making phone calls. Long distance was very expensive back then, so you had little regional "bubbles" of electronic community, and there wasn't this national intermingling in the BBS community like you have on the Internet, now.

I think it's a pretty natural human reaction, if you're trying to say something - especially in a very conversational medium such as a BBS - and you wish to emphasize some portion of your statement, to simply hold down the shift key. Personally speaking, I know I do this most when arguing with someone. I don't think it requires much of a leap to think of that as "shouting," because that's what I'd've been doing if I was talking to the person face to face.
7.12.2005 4:41am
Ted (www):
Using the emphasis of uppercase letters as a signal for shouting was a standard typographical convention in books long before Usenet was commonplace. E.g., Roth's "The Great American Novel" or John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany." More recently, the fifth Harry Potter book.
7.12.2005 6:36am
ajf (mail) (www):
ted -- thanks for posting that! i think we tend to lose sight of the contribution that pre-computer culture has made to the digital era. from using capital letters to denote EXTREME EMPHASIS to terms like web "page," a great deal has been carried over from earlier times. pre-usenet, even!
7.12.2005 8:39am
Vie (mail) (www):
I think we are working too hard at this. Uppercase type seems like shouting in relation to mixed-case or lowercase text simply because it is larger. The same effect can be had by simply switching to a larger font size, and conversely, a smaller font will read as a whisper.

Newspapers have for years reserved the large typefaces for headlines, which they want to SHOUT to the reader.
7.12.2005 9:18am
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):
"I seem to recall seeing ALL CAPS used in old comic books to represent shouting. "

Or larger font. Charlie Brown characters did this all the time. Whether it was comic books or regular books, that is almost certainly where the custom began. Nothing to do with computers at all.
7.12.2005 10:11am
Bill Harshaw (mail) (www):
I'm amazed that there's no discussion of plain old typewriters--I feel like a relic. Remember, please, that 99.9 percent of the people who set the initial social conventions for computers learned to type on a typewriter. On them, you could underline, you could sort of bold (backup and retype the letter(s)), or you could use all caps for emphasis. That was the limit. (At least until the IBM selectric came along, which made it possible to switch typing elements (fonts) for special effects.) I can remember doing all of them. What I don't remember is emoticons. (Have they declined in importance as we've all gotten used to the Web?)

A side note, it seems to me that in the good old days this was just one of the areas in which there was less variety and expression. There was LESS SHOUTING then. Are we more emotional today or is it the change from publishing via typewriter to e-mail that's responsible?
7.12.2005 10:13am
The Hill:
I'm not answering the question, but I think the reason we have "upper case" and "lower case" is interesting. Back in the day when "e" was a suffix (olde), when the typesetter went to set up the printing press, the upper case letters were just that; letters from the top drawer (the "upper case.")

I have no idea if this is true. One of the old guys at my firm is a fountain of questionable information.
7.12.2005 10:48am
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
Bill Harshaw: your point is interesting, but not because we are "more emotional" nowadays.

Simply this: technology has caught up enough to let us humanize an aspect of communication. Compare photos posed before 1940, or before 1900, with candid snaps today, or even a child's posed portrait for school. Emotion is allowed today, we recognize that posing for a picture is not an occasion for extreme solemnity (and extreme immobility; long exposure times), at least not necessarily.

As email superseded the letter as a major method of written communication (and it really has, in terms of numbers of communications typed per day per person, for most of us), it was inevitable that it would gain some of the emotional quality of conversation, taking on the coloration of online conversations: spontaneous, poorly spelled, rambling (sometimes), and full of emotion.

We always had the emotion; it wasn't always proper to express it in the context.
7.12.2005 10:51am
With all the talk about comic books on this thread, it brings to mind a different, entirely unrelated question: attorneys (which I presume many of us regular VC readers are) really are a bunch of big dorks, aren't we? I say this because most attorneys I know, myself included, are comic book readers or baseball card fanatics or have some other attribute generally associated with dorkdom. It seems that the all-American Byron-White attorneys are few and far between. Anybody else ever make this observation?
7.12.2005 11:23am
Baronger (mail) (www):
I don't really think that the use of upper case for "shouting" is intuitive. Almost every person who is new to the internet seems to have to be told that they are not to "shout".

My first experience with it was in online multigroup games like MUDS. The text only version of the modern group games. In text only communication, we lose a lot of the visual, and tonal cues that go into communication. This is why sarcasim doesn't translate too well to the written word.

I think that the upper case is just one of the personilizations that let us communicate by text as if we were face to face.

So it should be grouped witht the other shortcuts:

Emoticons: :) ;) :|

Emotes: *angry* *grin* *sigh*

It's probably a whole new linguistic phenominum. BTW anyone know if there is a good study on this. ;)
7.12.2005 12:08pm
Gus (mail):
The Hill: That is quite definitely true. See Chappell's classic A Short History of The Printed Word.

Incidentally, for those who suggest that we be warry of overlooking this behaviour as it predates the digital age, the early computers' single-case text, which many are suggesting as a basis for the later shouting interpretation, has a historical analogue in written script. Greek and and early Roman scripts did not have separate majuscule (capital) and minuscule letters. If memory serves, between the 6th and 9th centuries, uncial, which is a unicase script, developed, in a sense as a stop-gap between majuscule and minuscule letters. Prior to uncial script, letters looked like what we call upper-case: squared off, evenly spaced, equal height. Uncial developed as people wrote quickly, necessarily rounding off the letters, and spacing/sizing them as appropriate to their forms. In the hands of the Carolingians, these Uncials became a separate script of minuscule letters. It was around this time (9th-10th c.) that we first began to see mixed majuscule and minuscule lettering.

However, and while this does mirror the evolution of type on computers (insofar as it is single- to dual-case), I don't know of any instances of majuscules being used to indicate shouting.

As another note, it might be interesting to recall how different scripts/types have been used as proxies for others. For instance, as noted by Bill, above, typewriters could underline (poorly, but cheaply). Printers, however, very rarely underline: it interferes with the text of the line, the serifs, and the descenders, and, most importantly, the line needs to be added separately from the type itself (remember, in printing each letter is a separate piece of metal; there's no ``good'' way to generally line up the underlines on, e.g., the letters `x' and `g', to create an ``underlined'' typeset). Instead, printer use italics; typewriters avoided italics because you cannot readably mono-space them. As a result, the convention developed of underlining text that is meant to be italicised when printed. This mirrors the manuscript-preparation convention of underlining handwritten text that is to be italicised (here, because it is hard to hand-write italics, given that most script is already written on a slant).

Hopefully this is interesting to some, and isn't too off point...

7.12.2005 12:34pm
The Hill:
Thanks Gus.
7.12.2005 12:43pm
Nailman (mail) (www):
I think it came from emphasis. When one can't easily use italics, as on BBS's and USEnet in the early days, capitals are an easy way to add emphasis. For example, you COULD emphasize by using _underline-like_ marks, but this is more awkward. It's more NATURAL to emphasize using capitals, and it reads easily.

Once we agree to use capitals for emphasis, it's not a big leap to recognize that an entire sentence capitalized is shouting. After all, if you emphasize an entire sentence, it's shouting, isn't it?
7.12.2005 2:19pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
All the comments from the heart of the legal profession, law profs, lawyers, etc. overwhelms me as a demonstration of the complete lack of disability awareness "mindset" that is so evident in our Courts today. What are the States' Bars, Bar Examiners, and the ABA teaching us? Reading all sorts of nuances and emotions into ALL CAPS that might not be there is sheer speculation, because in reality, condemning, punishing, and ostracizing people who use ALL CAPS may (how do you know who you are talking to on the internet) be a blatant form of discrimination against e.g., a quadraplegic, person with no arms, dyslexic, or autistic person who is fortunate to be able to put the letters on the page in the first place, much less agonize about whether they are ALL CAPS. Maybe the legal world hasn't kept up with science, but (duh) some people use voice-recognition assistive technology and other devices to place their content into written format. Everyone here should be ashamed, and the writer who ascribes the quality of "laziness" to some faceless ALL CAPS user who might in reality be severely disabled, go hang your head in the dungeon of perpetual shame.
7.12.2005 3:02pm
Goober (mail):
It's probably part biological, but I think the convention comes from comic books. Larger lettering conveys yelling, etc.
7.12.2005 3:15pm
A Blogger:

Come again? The question is about people who use all caps on occasion, NOT PEOPLE WHO ALWAYS USE IT. Also, if you're using voice recognition software, and/or you have no arms, why not just put everything in lower case? Or use software that automatically inserts caps after a period?
7.12.2005 3:15pm
Bill Harshaw (mail) (www):
Eh nonymous: We may agree--I don't think there's been any physical change in Americans to generate more emotion. I think, as you indicate, the norms have changed so that emotion is more acceptable in communication. (One thing I didn't mention before is obvious: typed communications are different than e-mailed ones, more formal and less spontaneous.) I wonder--is emotion like steam, which is either contained or released, or is it more like "muscles", where the more you use them the more you have.

To return to Orin's original question--I think it's social convention. As Mary suggests, all caps doesn't necessarily mean emotion. Sometimes it's just inertia--many privacy statements on web sites are partially or totally in all caps, which is just another obstacle to anyone's reading them. Some lawyers (present company excepted) may believe that all caps are more official looking.
7.12.2005 4:36pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
It wasn't just the lack of capital and lower case letters in some character sets, as Wikipedia says. It was also a product of chatrooms in BBS's (bulletin board systems). When people were chatting, they typed in lower case because it was faster. Many people didn't even capitalize at all. This convention also found its way over to e-mail.

The result is, if everything else is in lower case AND ONE USER TYPES IN ALL CAPITALS, it stands out. Hence, "shouting".
7.12.2005 5:10pm