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Is it lowercase, lower-case, or lower case?

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  • It is lower case unless it's a modifier.
    – Irene
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:11
  • 2
    @Irene do you mean as in lowercase letters, for example? Please explain what you mean by a modifier.
    – Xonatron
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:12
  • 6
    You write: The name must be written in lower case. But: You must write your name in lower-case letters.
    – Irene
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:23

6 Answers 6

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Warren Chappell, Robert Bringhurst, and the printed Unicode Standard all use lowercase exclusively.

The only exception is when sorts are kept in two cases, and one puts some of those in the lower one and others in the upper.

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  • Can you give an example of the exception?
    – Xonatron
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:34
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    @MatthewDoucette The exception is when is talking about the physical cases used by hand compositors working with real metal type. The lower case is the case that holds the lowercase letters. For your purposes, there are no exceptions. Note that Unicode recognizes three cases: lowercase, uppercase, and titlecase, plus an internal one used by programs called foldcase.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:37
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    I believe tchrist refers to the origin of 'upper case' and 'lower case', which is simply that typesetters kept the shouty glyphs in a higher drawer than those better-behaved. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_case#Terminology Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:38
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Both lower case and lowercase can be seen in common usage, but it seems that lowercase became more popular after 1980s. You may want to check the following ngrams.

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The same case is valid for uppercase.

enter image description here

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  • 4
    Wow, this is very informative. The only unknown is if the usage of one or the other depends on context, as @Irene potentially suggested matters in the comment of the question.
    – Xonatron
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:21
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    @MatthewDoucette: If by "informative" you mean "misleading" then I agree with you. Did you wonder why "lower-case" flatlines, even though you know you've seen it in print more than, say, zero times? Because hyphenated words have to be separated into trigrams for NGram Viewer to correctly parse them. Here is a link to a corrected graph. Big difference, huh?
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:37
  • @Robusto, wow, I even went and tested to be sure lower-case resulted properly, and made the same mistake. What a horrible defect in Ngram Viewer, surely it has misled countless others.
    – Xonatron
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:40
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    I don't disagree with your general point, but you have to admit that if you did show faulty data (and before I called you out on it, you did), even if the error is not deliberate, your methods may be viewed with suspicion. What else isn't being shown? See my discussion of this whole NGram issue on meta. I have quite a burr under my saddle about this at the moment.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:53
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    @Robusto: I appreciate your correction and thanks for sharing the true method for ngrams. Shame on ngram developers. Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 21:23
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Lowercase initially came from "lower case", referring to literally the lower case of the cabinet where this typeset was kept by convention. It has gone through the typical contraction from "lower case" to "lowercase" via the hyphenated form. The use of the word (lowercase) has seen a spike in usage during the last decade or so, as everyone needs to know (now) that passwords are case sensitive and that using uppercase is shouting. Back in the days of the Guttenberg press, a lot of print was all uppercase. Fashions change, as do fontfaces.

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Dictionaries differ on how to handle this term—as a single closed-up word, as a hyphenated word, or as two separate words—depending on how the term is used and on when the dictionary was published. This answer looks at the evolution of spelling preferences given by two major U.S. dictionaries: American Heritage and Merriam-Webster.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2010) recommends spelling the adjective, verb, and noun forms identically, as lowercase:

lowercase adj. Of, printed, or formatted in lowercase letters. | tr.v. -cased, -casing, -cases To put (type or text) in lowercase letters. —lowercase n.

(It might for a moment appear that AHDEL is endorsing the hyphenated verb forms lower-cased, lower-casing, and lower-cases, but the hyphens in this entry are simply there to avoid respelling lower at the beginning of each of the three verb forms. In like manner, the dictionary's entry for backtrack—which the dictionary defines only as an intransitive verb—gives the relevant forms as -tracked, -tracking, and -tracks.)

Just ten years earlier, however, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition (2000) listed lower-case as a common (and acceptable) variant for both the adjective and verb forms of the term (although not for the noun form):

lowercase or lower-case adj. Of, printed, or formatted in lowercase letters. | tr.v. -cased, -casing, -cases To put (type or text) in lowercase letters. —lowercase n.

The third edition of AHDEL (1992) offered the same spelling and punctuation options as the fourth edition. But the first edition (1971) did not list the closed-up single-word spelling at all:

lower-case adj. Abbr. l.c. Printing. Of or pertaining to small letters as distinguished from capitals: a, b, and c are lower-case letters. —tr.v. lower-cased, -casing, -cases. To set (type) in lower case. —lower case [n.]

Thus, over a 40-year span, AHDEL's preferences for spelling the term run as follows:

as an adjective: lower-case (1971), lowercase or lower-case (1992 and 2000), lowercase (2010)

as a transitive verb: lower-case (1971), lowercase or lower-case (1992 and 2000), lowercase (2010)

as a noun: lower case (1971), lowercase (1992, 2000, and 2010)

The evolution of spelling and punctuation preferences for the term in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary series is far more abrupt, although it starts slowly enough. The first edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (1898) defines the term exclusively as an adjective:

Lower-case a. (Print.) Pertaining to, or kept in the lower case; — used to denote the small letters, in distinction from capitals and small capitals.

Clearly, the First Collegiate views lower case as the proper spelling of the noun form and lower-case as the proper spelling of the adjective form.These preferences persist though the second (1910), third (1916), and fourth (1931) editions. The fifth edition (1936) maintains the same preferences, but adds an entry for lower case as a noun form:

lower case Print. a See CASE, n., 6 ["Print. A shallow divided tray for type. The upper case contains capitals, accented and marked letters, etc.; the lower case contains the small letters, figures, etc."]. b Print in small letters. Abbr. l.c.

This interesting explanation of "upper case" and "lower case" had appeared in the entry for case as a noun since the third edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, but was not cross-referenced in the entry for lower-case as an adjective in either the third or the fourth edition.

The sixth edition (1949) repeated the fifth edition's entries for lower case (noun) and lower-case (adjective), but appended to the latter an entry for lower-case as a verb:

lower-case adj. Print. Pertaining to, or kept in, the lower case; small (not capital); as, lower-case letters. —v.t. To change to small letters.

The Seventh Collegiate (1963), taking its cue from the revolutionary (relatively) descriptivist adopted by the full-size Webster's Third New International Dictionary (also 1963), changed the spelling preference for all three forms:

lowercase adj {fr. the compositor's practice of keeping such type in the lower of a pair of type cases} of a letter : having as its typical forms a f g or b n i rather than A F G or B N Ilowercase n

lowercase vt : to print or set in lowercase letters

All subsequent editions of the Collegiate—the eighth (1973) the ninth (1983) the tenth (1993) and the eleventh (2003)—have adhered to the seventh edition's preferences. So the progression of orthographic preferences in the Collegiate Dictionary series runs as follows:

as an adjective: lower-case (1898, 1910, 1916, 1931, 1936, and 1949), lowercase (1963, 1973, 1983, 1993, and 2003)

as a transitive verb: lower-case (1949), lowercase (1963, 1973, 1983, 1993, and 2003)

as a noun: lower case (1898, 1910, 1916, 1931, 1936, and 1949), lowercase (1963, 1973, 1983, 1993, and 2003)

Interestingly, although Merriam-Webster Online likewise endorses lowercase as the preferred spelling for the term as an adjective, a verb, and a noun derived from the adjective, it also includes an entry for lower case (two words) for the historical sense of the term as a case of type containing small letters:

lower case noun : a type case containing lowercase letters and usually figures, punctuation marks, spaces, and quads


The upshot of this historical assessment is that, in the United States, lower case (noun) and lower-case (adjective) were the preferred spellings through the first half of the twentieth century, joined by lower-case (transitive verb) by 1949. In 1963, however, Merriam-Webster came out four-square for lowercase for all three forms. American Heritage opposed the closed-up one word spelling lowercase in its first edition (1971), but approved it as an acceptable variant in its third edition (1992), and embraced it to the exclusion of the hyphenated and open forms lower-case and lower case in its fifth edition (2010).

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  • An open and shut case. Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 12:04
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According to oxforddictionaries.com, "lower case" is used in British English, and "lowercase" is used in American English.

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All are okay – I've seen English teachers use all three, so it must be fine. I think it just depends, maybe, on where you live. In the United States and other countries, people use lowercase more often, but in other countries they might use lower case or lower-case most often.

I'm pretty sure that it doesn't matter. All ways of writing it are okay. Since lowercase is used more often in the United States, it may be helpful to use lowercase, but if you live in someplace where most people use lower case or lower-case, you should probably use the way that people spell it where you live. Nobody will mind, most likely, and people will understand it all three ways, but if you spell it in a way that most people from where you live don't spell it, they may use it as bad grammar and it may not bode you well if you are doing something formal. Just try to spell it the way that most people from where you live spell it.

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    Welcome to ELU! Do you have any research to back up your answer?
    – Nicole
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 22:01
  • This answer is very... repetitive. It seems to basically say the same few things (i.e. that all 3 ways are okay, and that it "might" vary by region) several different ways, without actually providing any sources/citations to back up its primary claim(s).
    – V2Blast
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:50

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