All Caps: A Practical Guide

In English, text in “all caps” (or “full caps”) typically signifies either extreme emphasis (“shouting”) or the presence of an acronym. There are a few other traditional uses—notably in the styling of government forms, legal contracts, and road signs, though the use of all caps on road signs and contracts has come under scrutiny.

One reason for the rarity of text in all caps is its perceived incivility. For English speakers, text in all caps conjures images of irate e-mails and expletive-laced Twitter rants. In the Q&A section of their website, the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) caution against reaching for the caps lock key, noting that “the use of all caps is criticized as the equivalent of shouting.” And words or phrases in all caps within blocks of normal text are generally shunned as unattractive.

The blockiness of capital letters also makes words harder to quickly recognize. Lowercase letters, with their ascenders and descenders, and tails and loops give words a distinctive form. In Japanese, each character and kana syllable occupies its own square space. To an eye used to seeing filled squares, perhaps, blocky capital letters may be more aesthetically pleasing. For Anglophone readers, it is less likely to be accepted.

But, as many professional editors working with Japanese clients can attest, understanding of the conventional functions of all caps can be weak. Text in all caps appears frequently in domestic publications—even formal ones. While such styling may be appropriate in Japanese texts, texts for international audiences should follow English conventions.

Many wordsmiths in Japan have found themselves at odds with at least one client over the use of all caps. To clarify English conventions, this article covers common flash points concerning all caps and presents the advice of major style guides.

All Caps for Abbreviations
In abbreviations, use of capital letters follows regular rules for truncated words (e.g., Dec., fig., etc.) and contractions formed by omitting letters (e.g., Dr., Ltd., amt.).1 The initial letters of proper nouns are capitalized, but other letters are lowercased.

The only short form consistently written in all caps is the acronym and only then when it is formed as an initialism. Such acronyms are made up of the initial letter of each word in a compound term. Style guides differ as to the maximum length an all-caps acronym can be, as well as whether to use all caps for acronyms read as words rather than as individual letters.2 Following § 10.6 of CMOS,3  SWET recommends using full caps for all bona fide acronyms, regardless of whether they are read as a word or individual letters (e.g., UNESCO, METI, WHO, NAFTA, DNA, GMO, etc.).

“The trend to get rid of all caps is so strong that British English style guides recommend capitalizing [only the first letter of] acronyms if possible. For example, Unesco vs UNESCO.”

 — David Eunice

For a concrete local example, the Japanese company name ASICS is an acronym derived from the Latin phrase, Anima Sana in Corpore Sano (a sound spirit in a sound body) and gets a green light for using all caps.

The Japanese practice of abbreviating words to the readings of just a few kanji characters does not result in acronyms formed as initialisms (each letter does not stand for a separate word), and thus, SWET does not recommend all caps for such terms (e.g., Riken, Sokendai, Zen-Noh, Nissan, Toden, etc.).

All Caps for Company Names and Trademarked Terms
An organization may capitalize its full or abbreviated name at its own discretion, but there are no legal stipulations mandating that external groups follow in-house styles. In English, publications are free to edit the capitalization of company names and trademarked terms to match their own style guides and contexts. For example, Time magazine is rarely referred to as TIME magazine in external publications, despite the company’s own preference for all caps (TIME).

“Japanese usage honors logos, deeming them official, while English usage makes a distinction between the designed word and the text-based word.”

— Susan Rogers Chikuba

In fact, CMOS4 took up the question of trademarked terms specifically in an online Q&A, with their editors recommending initial caps only, regardless of “official” policy or corporate preference. They base their recommendation on the International Trademark Association’s “Trademark Basics” which allow for trademarked terms to be offset from surrounding text in several ways, including initial caps (e.g., Crayola crayons, Kleenex tissue).

“I think there is value in reminding clients that there is no copyright issue—a name is the same in capitals or non-capitals—and that a long name in all caps looks hideous.”

— Jens Wilkinson

Some clients in Japan may also mistakenly believe that the English version of a company name located next to the copyright symbol on their website is the official English name. Website development is frequently outsourced, and misspellings and inexplicable romanization choices abound. If an official English spelling is needed, contact the organization directly, but capitalization should follow the standard conventions of English text.

All Caps for Surnames
A few English style guides in Japan tackle the issue of writing surnames so they will be correctly identified. Some journals and organizations specify all caps so that the given name will not be mistaken for the surname. The Japan Style Sheet recommends avoiding all caps for surnames (as well as company names). The Writing and Style Manual from the Japan Tourism Agency and the NICH Style Manual for English Texts specifically say to avoid all caps when denoting surnames in tourist and museum signage.

“When this comes up, I explain the context in which the practice of writing surnames in all caps probably emerged and indeed makes sense: long lists of conference attendees of many different nationalities, or the name tags used at such gatherings, for example—neither of which is running text. Still, there will be those who are adamant about uppercasing last names even in, say, a 200-page coffee-table artsy book. Then one needs to point out how jarring it is to read TANAKA over and over again, in paragraph after paragraph, page after page. The impact is like shouting. It’s unnatural, unkind to the reader, and not in keeping with the mood of the work.”

— Susan Rogers Chikuba

Even Japanese government policy now calls for all caps for surnames only “when it is necessary to clarify the distinction.”5 In running text in English, it is highly irregular to use all caps for a surname. There is nothing wrong with using the traditional order without rendering the surname in all caps (though an editorial note or footnote regarding name order and surnames is often advisable, as recommended in the Japan Style Sheet, p. 37).

Unconventional use of all caps is jarring to the reader and can be a risky editorial choice. It could raise red flags in the reader’s mind about the professional standards of the publication at hand. While editors may wish to honor the capitalization preferences of certain companies, orthographical consistency is highly valued in English and should not be broken without good reason.

SWET’s Final Verdict: Reserve the use of all caps for acronyms formed as initialisms only.

For brief reference concerning "All Caps," see page 49 of the Japan Style Sheet.

[1]British style guides do not use periods after contractions (e.g., Dr, Mr, assn, Ltd), but retain periods for truncated words (e.g., Prof., Rev., Jan.). See CMOS § 10.4 for more information about the use of periods in abbreviations.

[2]The Guardian and Observer Style Guide Online recommends that acronyms read as words be upper-and-lowercased (e.g., Unicef, Unesco, Covid, etc.). The Economist Style Guide also recommends that abbreviations pronounced as words be upper-and-lowercased, though it lists UNESCO in all caps. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (2015) recommends acronyms of five or more letters be upper-and-lowercased. The AP Stylebook limits the use of all caps to acronyms read as individual letters (e.g., WHO, TPP, etc.).

[3]The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[4]The sixteenth edition of CMOS recommended uppercase followed by lowercase for all company names, regardless of official logotype (§ 8.68), but this was revised in the seventeenth edition to “a preference for all uppercase should be respected.” SWET recommends wordsmiths in Japan stick to the rule in the sixteenth edition to avoid unintended ramifications in cross-cultural applications.

[5]As of this document, issued October 2019, the Prime Minister’s Office recommendation calls for use of Japanese names in traditional order, surname first (各府省庁が作成する公用文等において,日本人の姓名をローマ 字表記する際は,原則として「姓―名」の順で表記することとし) and stipulates that surnames be given in all caps “when it is necessary to clarify the distinction” (姓と 名を明確に区別させる必要がある場合).

Compiled by Rebekah Harmon. We also gratefully acknowledge the advice provided by the following people in answer to a question posted by Lynne E. Riggs on the SWET-L mailing list July 5, 2017: Jens Wilkinson, Jeremy Whipple, Susan Rogers Chikuba, and David Eunice (in order of responses).

© 2022  Originally written for the SWET website, March 2022.