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In many error messages and conversations, I come across words in all capital letters, as demonstrated in the examples below.

ERROR: Please type your e-mail address.

or

ME: I can't make it
SHE: I HATE you.
ME: I'm soo sorry.

What is the typical meaning of or reason for these words written in all capital letters?

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HI MARCO I AM TOTALLY NOT SHOUTING AT YA! –  RolandiXor Jan 13 '11 at 14:51
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@ROLAND TAYLOR: 'EM'S SHOUTIN' WORDS! –  muntoo Jan 13 '11 at 23:24
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7 Answers 7

up vote 29 down vote accepted

All caps are typically used for either of two reasons:

  • Visual Style

    Capital letters are often used on covers of magazines, in logos and artsy-typography, usually to emphasise the visual style of the letters themselves, rather than the word. (Example Image)

  • Contextual emphasis:

    Capital letters can be considered a third form of emphasis, among Italics and Bold text. They are used to denote a louder, almost shouting (and in many cases actually shouting) pronunciation.

    This is done by tabloid newspapers, for example:

    Political Correctness Gone MAD!

    (in this example, the exclamation mark is used, erroneously, to add even more volume)

    Legal documents sometimes use capital letters to denote areas of special importance. They are, presumably, trying to avoid the area being overlooked by the reader, by making it stand out from the rest of the text.

    This product comes with NO WARRANTY.

There are also technical reasons for using capital letters. Here are just some examples of this:

  • Typesetting systems (old computers, stencils, ...) that don't allow for italics or bold text may encourage some to use capital letters instead

  • Capital letters to denote a SURNAME as opposed to a first name (according to wikipedia, this is done in francophone countries)

There are suggestions, some call it a consensus, that upper case text is harder to read than correctly capitalised text. This, to my knowledge, first manifested itself in public policy when British road signs were changed in 1957. The Worboys Committee proposed a new type face called Transport, using lower case letters for the first time. This is based on the idea that one reads the shape of the word rather than each individual letter. The All caps article on Wikipedia summarises the evidence for this.

It's not even always a good idea to capitalise acronyms and initialisms, as illustrated by this ridiculous example:

Have they turned on the LASER yet?

Rhodri rightly says that this is uncommon and only happens to de-facto words.

As Jimi pointed out, ALL CAPS in email and instant messaging conversations is considered shouting, and people who use it extensively are considered trolls.

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@Rhodri, You're absolutely right - it's not common. (The only other ones I can think of are Unicef, Radar, Lidar and Quasar) –  Stefano Palazzo Jan 13 '11 at 17:07
    
.....and scuba. –  ash Jan 13 '11 at 20:33
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They are usually used to add emphasis. They are also often used in place of italics in situations where those can't be displayed.

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Online, they mean I AM SHOUTING AT YOU! On Reddit specifically, they mean HI BILLY MAYS HERE! –  RegDwigнt Jan 13 '11 at 14:20
    
Or, if you don't like SHOUTING, you can do this: _ emphasized text _. (Without the extra spaces between the underscores and words.) –  muntoo Jan 13 '11 at 23:26
    
@Reg It implies shouting in contexts other than the Internet as well. –  Maxpm Jan 14 '11 at 2:19
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All caps is used primarily for emphasis. When used excessively in an electronic message (email, discussion thread, etc), this is called shouting and it is considered quite rude. For more on the various uses of all caps, see the Wikipedia article.

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ALL CAPS ON THE INTERNET OR IN WRITTEN ELECTRONIC DOCUMENTS IS OFTEN THE RESULT OF A MISTAKE BY OLDER, OR LESS EXPERIENCED, COMPUTER USERS WHO USE CAPSLOCK AND FORGET THAT IT IS ENABLED.

GENERALLY, WHEN IT IS NOT A MISTAKE, IT DENOTES SHOUTING, EMPHASIS, IMPORTANCE, OR URGENCY.

IT CAN ALSO BE USED IN SCENARIOS WHERE CLEAR TEXT IS REQUIRED - THOUGH THIS IS USUALLY EMPLOYED WHEN WRITING BY HAND.

MY ANSWER IS IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE IF YOU READ IT BACK IN YOUR HEAD IT WILL SOUND LIKE I'M SCREAMING AT YOU MARCO :D!

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Heh, on your first comment. I once had a woman chastise me, when I asked her not to use all caps, say, "I have long fingernails, and it's too hard to use the shift button." Don't discount laziness. –  Bill Jan 13 '11 at 17:02
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@Bill: Did you respond with "here's a buck, buy yourself a nail-clipper so you can stop being a rude jerk"? I would have. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 13 '11 at 17:31
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@Bill: Ugh, I do despise long fingernails. The fact that people type improperly because of them makes it doubly bad. –  Orbling Jan 14 '11 at 0:21
    
-1 for being too loud. (just kidding) –  Tobias Kienzler Jul 11 '11 at 12:00
    
@Bill: wait, that would imply there are people out there using CAPS LOCK?! –  0xC0000022L Feb 21 '13 at 2:16
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Lo, these many years ago, I took a typing class (manual typewriters, for a true sense of age!). We were instructed to use ALL CAPS as a substitute for bold and underline (__) as a substitute for italics.

When I started going on line (long before publicly available Internet), I was taught to surround text with asterisk (*) when I intended bold and with underscore (_) when I intended italic. If you pay attention to the markup used in this forum, you can see how those conventions have been honoured and expressed over time and through changing technology.

In English classes (native English, not ESL or second-language) we were also taught to use ALL CAPS to separate the 'description' from the 'real' text. So, in your error message example, ERROR: is telling you that what follows is an error message as distinct from a warning message (WARNING:) or a purely informational message (INFO:). A similar concept applies to dialogue the way it is normally written in plays.

As a side note, I was also taught that underline was introduced with the typewriter and that previous to that scribes and typesetters used actual italics (and bold). I have not been able to confirm that anywhere, though.

The other answers are, of course, also correct.

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Used to emphasize a point you want to make. But using it excessively would seem like you are shouting at the top of your voice.. which is not very nice.....

All CAPITALS make reading quite difficult too...

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In some usage circles, titles and other things that would properly be set in italic are translated to uppercase instead. For example:

The Soandso Players will be performing THE TURN OF THE SCREW at the K---- Memorial Theater this August 30th and 31st.

I am told that this is a carryover from typewritten manuscripts, particularly stage plays and the like, where upper case is used to distinguish character names from dialogue.

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