Knowing Your Uppercase from Your lowercase

You don’t need a post on the meaning of uppercase and lowercase, I know. You don’t need to be a ‘Writer’ to know the difference. Anyone who can string a sentence together uses both with aplomb. But just in case there is anyone out there able to read this blog and still perplexed here is a brief explanation, plus a bit of historical context.

Uppercase and lowercase letters refer to all letters used to compose the English language. Uppercase letters (CAPITALS) are used to begin sentences and are also used at the start of proper nouns (London, Mary) and some titles (Sir XXX). Lowercase letters are all letters that do not begin sentences or start proper nouns. Acronyms – that is abbreviations formed by taking the initial letter from a longer title, like NATO, UNICEF – are usually written in uppercase to denote that each letter represents a separate word. To use lowercase, could cause confusion.

Some writers work against this grain, and choose to write everything in UPPERCASE, or – like the poet e.e.cummings – use lowercase throughout. But for most who put pen to paper, the above generalisations apply.

Uppercase letters in Modern English derive from an Old Roman script used in the AD 200s. In those days, uppercase was all there was, so didn’t need a special name. Lowercase letters hadn’t been invented yet, so uppercase was used for everything. Lowercase letters as we know them, first called minuscule scrip, can be traced to the eigth century court of the early French King Charlemagne. The newly developed minuscule script became a faster and more appealing writing system for monks and scholars who, as trained scribes, produced most medieval manuscripts.

The terms uppercase and lowercase came into use after printing was invented and are derived from the way in which print shops were organised. Individual pieces of metal type were kept in boxes called cases. The smaller letters, which were used most often, were kept in a lower case that was easier to reach. Capital letters were kept in the upper part of the case.

The use of a mix of upper and lower case letters belongs to the way the script is written, not the language. So all languages using Latin script, like English, French, German etc. have upper and lower case, but languages using Devangari (syllabic) script, such as Hindi or Sanskrit do not.

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