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In practice, which would be correct: "Does the word begin with a capital m?" or "Does the word begin with a capital M"?

In that situation I'm minded to use M, because that's what I'm referring to, but to ask " Does the word begin with an uppercase or lowercase _?" is not so obvious.

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The OP asks whether the upper or the lower case version of a letter is the 'primary' form, thus making the other version 'subsidiary'. Should it be -

'M' - is a capital 'm'.

or

'M' - is a capital 'M'.

Similarly, should it be that -

'm' - is a lowercase 'M'.

or

'm' - is a lowercase - 'm'.

I think the answer is that it does not matter BUT that your usage should be consistent.

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Apparently. there is some controversy over this. It seems that it's a matter of opinion if you should use capital M or capital m.

Of course, you can always rephrase the question to avoid the debate:

Does the word begin with a capital letter?
Is the first letter of the word capitalized?
Does the word begin with M or m?


Personally, when I refer to letters as letters, I put them in italics. (Some people will put them in quotation marks.) Also, if I'm making a specific distinction between the uppercase version and the lowercase version, especially when writing them next to each other, I use the version I want to draw attention to. (As in the third example sentence above.) If the case of the letter is unimportant to the discusion, I use the lowercase version in italics—which is what The Chicago Manual of Style recommends.

Depending on how you view it, "a capital M" is fine, because the phrase is describing what the thing already is—it would be analogous to saying "a yellow banana" or "a cold ice cube." It could perhaps be considered redundant, but redundancies are frequently used in English to make ideas explicit.

On the other hand, it could be considered illogical to say "a capital M" because of an implication that you are taking an M and turning it into a capital form. (But, of course, that doesn't exist.)

So, avoid this particular issue altogether and rephrase your sentence in a similar fashion to the example sentences I provided—or simply stick to whatever style you want to use, assuming it doesn't conflict with a style guide you need to adhere to.

  • Another way to avoid the controversy could be to use the spelling of the letter, I suppose: "capital em". – calum_b Apr 29 at 11:43
  • @calum_b Yes . . . That's something that might be done when writing dialogue. For instance, it's a convention to never use numerals in dialogue, but to spell out the numbers. The use of em seems like a phonetic equivalent. (Of course, you could easily get into difficultly with how you represent the sounds of the letters—both because of standards that some people don't know, such as , for instance, and because of different pronunciations—most notably, or zed, depending on US or UK English). – Jason Bassford Apr 29 at 11:53
  • You could refer to 'majuscule' and 'minuscule' instead of upper and lower case. Then you'd have a different problem :) – user888379 Apr 29 at 14:32
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REVISED

Should “mum/mom” be written with a capital ‘m’ or not?

I would suggest that letter mentioned should be left in lowercase, as a “capital M” would suggest there might be an uppercase version of M.

However, what do I know? Journalists writing for The New York Times use the uppercase

Still in high school, he has grown up with the notion that college is a word that should always be spelled with a capital “C.” source

Then again, the Mets are developing a bumper crop of players whose last names begin with a lowercase D.

In d’Arnaud’s case, the Mets simply flipped an uppercase “P” upside down. source

In some ways, uppercase “Internet” was always a bit of an anomaly, since it is not really a proper noun comparable to a company name or an official place name. The term internet (short for internetwork) described any linked network of computers, so the capital “I” served to distinguish the global network from other internets — a pointless distinction now, since “internet” is rarely used anymore in the generic sense. source

If the letter is at the beginning of a word, paragraph or chapter, the author or publisher might want to set it off differently from the rest of the text, this is known as the initial or drop capital.

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    By this reasoning... "The word 'dust' when it features half-way through a sentence should be written with a lower case 'D' (as a lower case 'd' would suggest there is an lowercase version of 'd'). Just wondering what your reasons are for suggesting that 'capital' letters are subsidiary versions of 'lower case' letters? – Dan Apr 29 at 10:12
  • @Dan I don't understand what you mean. When one refers to the letters of the alphabet or to the spelling they are usually represented by small letters, unless theletter represent a fictitious person. A: How do you spell/write "world war I"? B: "With two capital "w"s. – Mari-Lou A Apr 29 at 10:16
  • @JasonBassford then I must be particularly obtuse today because "M" is the uppercase of "m" it is not the uppercase of "M" itself whilst "m" is the lowercase of "M" – Mari-Lou A Apr 29 at 10:19
  • There is the letter M (uppercase) and the letter m (lowercase). To say that M is wrong or m is wrong is arbitrary. You can't pick either uppercase or lowercase as the thing that the other is a form of. – Jason Bassford Apr 29 at 10:19
  • @JasonBassford "would suggest" is offering an explanation, it is not saying anything is "wrong" or "right". In questions about style, everyone is free to do as they please. – Mari-Lou A Apr 29 at 10:24

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