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Friday, 20 October, 2000, 10:25 GMT 11:25 UK
A capital offence case

Company names, signs, TV shows - all have begun to ignore the rules of grammar. What is happening to our capital letters, asks BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley.

lastminute. dinnerladies. go. smile. Spot anything missing? Is this the decline before the fall of the Roman capital empire?

George W Bush
"The capital of Russia? Er ... R, isn't it?"
London's Barbican Arts Centre has spent 50,000 redesigning its logo. Its new look has a lower case b.

Officials say the capital B will be retained in press releases. However, in reporting the centre's revamp, newspapers have already referred to it as the "barbican".

Using "Carolingian minuscules" - lower case letters - and ignoring Roman capitals is all the rage.

Small change

A company aiming to rebrand the northern city of Hull - and propel it into the premier league of urban centres - settled on the slogan "pioneering hull".

CityImage - which seems happy to include a smattering of capitals in its own name - has angered some in the city.

Gladiator
"Anyone else prefer Carolingian minuscules?"
Gerard Hailwood, secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, was scornful of a CityImage advert written entirely in lower case.

"While the teachers in the city work their hearts out trying to raise the standards of literacy, the image-makers put out copy that sends a clear message that standards don't count," he said.

The exclusive use of small letters was defended by the company, which said its intention was to mimic "a modern, forward-looking e-mail".

Downsizing

E-mailers, it seems, are the fifth column in the assault against capital letters.

In a recent survey, internet consultancy The Fourth Room found writing e-mails entirely in lower case is an increasingly fashionable habit of the "digitally literate".

HM The Queen visits a computer train
Are e-mailers helping change the Queen's English?
So-called "creative professionals" are particularly adept at dropping their Hs - along with every other big letter in the alphabet.

This trend owes much to the rise of the dot.com.

High-profile internet firms, such as travel specialists lastminute and the - soon to be revived - sportswear e-tailer boo, flew in the face of the rule that proper nouns must begin with a capital.

The seeds of this rebellion were sown back in the mists of internet time - well, 1987 - when it was decided domain names should not be case sensitive.

URL power

Type NEWS.BBC.CO.UK and see where it gets you. news.bbc.co.uk, that's where.

Lower case names have made the jump from the URL address box to the UK's billboards and newspapers for several reasons.

Novelty value for one. The omission of a capital can win a company name the reader's attention and build brand recognition in a market crowded by new start-ups.

British Airways' budget airline go
Flying in the face of convention?
But Dr Margaret Smith, from the University of Reading's typography department, says the fashion may burn itself out.

"As soon as you're joined by other people writing only in lower case, the novelty wears off."

Already the lower case ranks have been swelled by firms such as the British Airways budget spin-off "go".

Standing out from the crowd now requires an even more liberal application of grammar. Exhibit 1: easyEverything.

Cap and gown

Designer label Chanel has gone to the other extreme, deciding to have its name written in capitals at all times.

Internet users may be horrified to see CHANEL - capitals are widely frowned upon as the e-mail equivalent of shouting.

Child at an anti-noise protest
Capitals are the e-mail version of shouting
Indeed, The Guardian's "Reader's Editor" says the paper's growing use of small letters is in the interests of humility and egalitarianism.

"The Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary are now the home secretary and the foreign secretary, the sort of people you might find standing next to you in the queue for the bus."

Though purists have spotted a decline in the use of capitals in recent years, the struggle has raged between upper and lower cases for centuries.

Change a cummings

In the 20th Century, minuscules won the backing of such cultural visionaries as poet e.e. cummings and singer kd lang.

In the 1920s, Germany's influential Bauhaus design school advocated the abolition of capitals from typography.

"Why have two alphabets when one will do?" said Bauhaus master Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.

Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman from lastminute
Dot.coms: Ventures without capitals
"we write all small, then we spare time." read the school's letterhead.

Dr Smith says the scholars who first combined minuscule and capitals might not understand any move to undo their system.

"It was considered a great advance. It changed the status of words. It was not decorative, but meaningful - changing the actual meaning of text."

Indeed what would Dr Smith's home city of Reading be without a capital letter? A verb.

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