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I love K.D. Lang and her music, but . . .

P
roper nouns are capitalized. All caps is for initialisms and acronyms. We use the modern English alphabet when writing for modern English speakers. Somewhere along the line, perhaps because of the same technological advances that allow me to get pedantic about this to a worldwide audience, these first-grade English lessons have been discarded in favor of a misguided attempt to reproduce corporate logos and placate vain superstars.

Sure, before "k.d. lang" there was "e.e. cummings." But, as most good dictionaries (in the latter case) and New York Times style (in both cases) recognize, these are logos. The names are K.D. Lang and E.E. Cummings. To use the lowercase style not only deprives readers of a crucial visual cue, it also opens the door to more egregious abuses of our capitalization system (see below). One caveat, of course, is that when you print "K.D. Lang" or "E.E. Cummings" without a footnote explaining your departure from the norm (much as when you split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition), many readers will simply assume you made a mistake.

(Cummings, by the way, is said to have disdained the lowercasing of his name, despite his lowercase tendencies in poetry.)

But Bill, you may ask, don't people have the right to be called whatever they choose? Well, ideally, yes. And if I could be guaranteed that an eccentric dead poet and a gender-bending Canadian torch-twang-pop star would be the only people ever to be associated with the all-lowercase conceit, I'd be inclined to cap and let cap. But people are weird, and they're not getting any less so. It won't be long before reporters start submitting man-on-the-street quotes from "john smith (cq)." Still OK with you? How about another ordinary citizen, perhaps being listed in the agate somewhere, who insists that his name is I'M!!!A!!!NEAT!!GUY!!? You see, the thing about this is that it's impossible to be a consistent liberal on this issue -- you have to draw the line somewhere, and I choose to draw it quicker than most. Example: Let's say some states'-rights kook decides that he wants to be known as John Q. Alabamaalaskaarizonaarkansascaliforniacoloradoconnecticutdelaware- floridageorgiahawaiiidahoillinoisindianaiowkansaskentuckylouisianamainemarylandmassachusettsmichiganminnesota- mississippimissourimontananebraskanevadanewhampshirenewjerseynewmexiconewyorknorthcarolinanorthdakotaohio- oklahomaoregonpennsylvaniarhodeislandsouthcarolinasouthdakotatennesseetexasutahvermontvirginiawashington- westvirginiawisconsinwyoming, and that furthermore, any abbreviation of that, even in headlines, constitutes an insult to his religious beliefs. I doubt any newspaper would expend the ink, paper and trouble necessary to honor that request.

As for the artist formerly known as Prince (or should I say The Artist, formerly known as Prince?), I don't think I'll get much argument when I assert that he should pick a name, not a symbol or an oblique reference to a name, and stick with it.

Corporate identities and faux acronyms confuse a lot of journalists. Your credit card may say VISA, your athletic shoes may say NIKE or adidas, but this is just because the companies chose an all-caps or all-lowercase presentation for the brand names. That doesn't mean you write the words that way, any more than you would write WEBSTER'S NEW UNIVERSAL UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY just because that's what it says on the spine. (And why in the world does everybody bend over backward to write "thirtysomething" without a capital T? Nobody writes "DRAGNET" or "THREE'S COMPANY," though that was how the titles were written in those shows' opening credits.)

Even if you disagree with me on this point, by the way, please, please don't go the extra step toward lunacy and insist on lowercasing the T in "Thirtysomething" or the K in "K.D. Lang" or the A in "Adidas" in a case where you'd uppercase "dog" or "tree" or "muffin." I've seen the lowercased "thirtysomething" at the beginning of a sentence and the lowercased "washingtonpost.com" in an up-style headline (every other word was capped!), and I hope I never see such things again.

Just as I think it's confusing to plop lowercased proper nouns into a sentence, I think it's incredibly distracting to employ false-alarm end-of-sentence punctuation. If I'm reading along and I see a reference to Guess? jeans, I don't get to the "jeans." I stop at "Guess?" and try to figure out the answer to the question. At the end of a sentence it's probably even worse, as the sentence will look like a genuine question. The logo is GUESS?, but the name is Guess. If a newspaper indulges Yahoo's preference for Yahoo!, it risks sounding way too excited in headlines (Tech Stock Surge Boosts Yahoo!). The logo is Yahoo!, but the name is Yahoo. And did you know that the Ann Taylor chain of upscale women's clothing uses a period in its smushed-together logo? If you accept Guess? and Yahoo!, you are beholden to allow things like Shoppers mobbed the AnnTaylor. store in search of last-minute gifts. Activist groups like to combine inappropriate capital letters with exclamation points, but again we must translate these names into standard English. "STOP! The Insanity" should be published as "Stop the Insanity."

Lest you think I'm being totally unreasonable, I don't have any problems with mid-word caps that make sense (CompuServe) or even with fanciful coinages such as GEnie -- GE is General Electric, so there's a reason for the caps. I've even softened to the point where iMac, and eThis and eThat, don't bother me. At least there's a capital letter near the place where there should be one, and I can't very well object to van Gogh and the like.


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