A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 19: Letter Case

Anyone who’s ever come anywhere near a computer will have heard of upper case and lower case: the words used to describe ‘big’ and ‘small’ letters respectively. You may even know how these two words came in to use. The terms come from long ago when printing was a whole lot different. A printer would have to manually take the letters, engraved on to small pieces of metal (known as metal type), and lock them into a press. The capital letters and small letters were kept in two separate cases, and it was standard to keep the capital letters in a case higher than the small letters, hence the name upper and lower case.

A typical type case. Image courtesy of skagman on Flickr

A typical type case. Image courtesy of skagman on Flickr

I learned a lot about the printing press and the tools used from my grandfather when I was younger. My grandfather worked for a printing press for many years and still has his type cases in pristine condition.

But today, as I was reading through a book on the programming language VBA, I came across this:

[T]he easiest [function] to use is the StrConv, which can convert a string to a variety of different formats varying from straightforward uppercase, lowercase or propercase (as VBA refers to initial capitals, also known as title case).

While that might sound like a load of nonsense to some, the two words that caught my attention were proper case and title case. Proper case it seems is a term unique to the Visual Basic programming language. Title case, on the other hand, is used outside of computing (as well as in come computing languages, such as Python). Title case is when all of the major words in a sentence are capitalised, while function words, such as articles, remain in all small letters. This is also known as headline style.

I decided to do a little more research on the topic, and found a few more interesting terms.

Similar to title case, there is also start case. While title case does not capitalise some less important words, start case does not discriminate, and all words are capitalised.

I then came across the terms minuscule, majuscule, ascender and descender, which I’d also not seen before.

David Crystal says this about ‘minuscules’ and ‘majuscules’ in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language:

Majuscule Several forms of writing consist of letters broadly contained within a single pair of horizontal lines: they are usually referred to as capital letters.

Minuscule Several forms of writing consist of letters whose parts extend above and below a pair of horizontal lines. They are usually known as small letters.

While it might be tempting to think of minuscule in its everyday meaning of ‘tiny’, it does not refer to the size of the small letters in relation to capital ones, but rather that majuscules typically are of the same height, while minuscules vary in height.

It’s when we talk about minuscules that we see the terms ‘ascender’ and ‘descender’, and for a definition, back to Crystal:

Ascenders A part of a [small] letter that extends above the height of the letter x, as in h.

Descenders A part which extends below the x, as in p.

So, the terms ascender/descender refer to the portions of a letter that extend above or below the height of a small x, helpfully called the x-height. Note: The terms don’t refer to the entire small letters, only the extensions.

Who knew that so much thought has gone into those little squiggles we write and, perhaps more often these days, type every day.

2 comments on “Day 19: Letter Case

  1. timothyhampson
    January 20, 2015

    I’ve been making up how to do title case all these years. I always assumed there wasn’t really a rule because I never got in trouble. Another very interesting post. Thanks!


    • David Harbinson
      January 20, 2015

      I think title case can definitely be confusing. The problem is that there isn’t just one rule, there seems to be a variety of different rules, and moving between them is what’s caused the confusion for me.


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This entry was posted on January 19, 2015 by in Language and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .


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