Why should we capitalize the first person pronoun 'I' even when it does not appear at the beginning of a sentence? Why is it not the case for other pronouns?

  • 11
    "We", "us", "me" etc. are also first person pronouns but they are not capitalized. Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 4:16
  • 1
    A good addition to my former question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/172/…
    – VonC
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 8:01
  • Interesting article with history and what-not: nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03wwln-guestsafire-t.html
    – glenneroo
    Commented Jan 19, 2011 at 7:44
  • imho, the word "Why" needs to be dropped from the current subject of this question. i propose that it is not necessary to capitalize the English pronoun "i". Natural languages are not absolute. "to google" is here to stay, like it or not. @ShreevatsaR makes a fine point about the other first person pronouns. Much of English comes from German and in German "ich" is lower case in mid sentence. i now almost always use "i" and have done so for many months. My mother tongue is Canadian English. My rationale for my behaviour is that "i" and "l" can be confused in sans serif fonts.(continued)
    – gerryLowry
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 19:12
  • (continued) Since i can not control the fonts used to display my words, i deliberately use lower case "i" to represent the first person singular pronoun whenever i am writing about myself. i also use lower case "i" when i start a sentence with a word like "it". e. e. cummings, perhaps because the shift key on his typewriter was broken, wrote poems in all lower case. i carry your heart... "The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver", "Language in Thought and Action", s.i. hayakawa, 4th edition, p. 50
    – gerryLowry
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 19:14

2 Answers 2


The pronoun I began to be 'capitalized' around the middle of the 13th century. But this was not true capitalization. Note that it was long before the printing press: all texts were in manuscript.

Before the 11th century, the letter i was normally just a short vertical line, without a dot, somewhat like ı. The j did not exist as a separate letter. When an ı was written as a separate word or mark, as the Roman numeral ı/I and the pronoun ı/I, or when it was the last one of a group of ı's, it began to be written elongated, somewhat like a straighter ȷ (without a dot). This elongation of the separate, single ı was probably done in order to avoid confusion with punctuation marks. That of the last ı of a group was mostly in order to avoid confusion between u and ıı, between n and ıı, and between m and ııı, which often look identical in manuscripts; both m and ııı could be written with and without clearly distinguishable connecting strokes. From then on, such groups of ı's looked more like ıȷ and ııȷ (without dots).

I believe that this convention of elongating the pronoun I had already been established by the time the dot was first used. Because a long ȷ without a dot looks much like a capital I—which has been written the same way since Antiquity—, it was later assumed to be a capital. (Incidentally, the dot was then usually written as a very short diagonal line above the ı or ȷ.)

From Etymonline:

The reason for writing I is ... the orthographic habit in the middle ages of using a 'long i' (that is, j or I) whenever the letter was isolated or formed the last letter of a group; the numeral 'one' was written j or I (and three iij, etc.), just as much as the pronoun. [Otto Jespersen, "Growth and Structure of the English Language," p.233]

An illustration of the problem of indistinguishable ııı, uı, m, etc.:

illustration of orthography due to which problems arose

Cedet animam meam in
te mee: dimittam adver
sum me eloquium meum loq[ua]r
in amaritudine anime mee di

[From Mechanical Snail's comment below:] By contrast, "i" (meaning "and") is not capitalized in Catalan / archaic Spanish, nor in Polish/Serbo-Croatian.

[From Janus's comment below:] Possibly related is the fact that the pronoun I in Danish (where it means ‘ye’, i.e., non-formal second person plural) is also always capitalised. The homophone i (which means ‘in’), however, is not.

  • 3
    But then why is "i" (meaning "and") not capitalized in Catalan/archaic Spanish and Polish/Serbo-Croatian? Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 1:10
  • 2
    @Mech: An interesting question. Of course there was no forcing necessity that made scribes lengthen the single i in English: before the 11th century, apparently it wasn't deemed necessary. Compare u and n: these two letters were usually indistinguishable, and yet there was never a universally used diacritic (the small curve or circle above u was never universal, as far as I know). So the supposedly improved legibility of lengthened i was only one of the factors at play (I don't know the others). It's quite interesting to know that it didn't happen in any of the languages you mention. Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 12:14
  • 2
    @kinokijuf: I'm sorry, I owed you an explanation: you had replaced some of the i's and j's with their dotless variants, which was good; but you didn't do all, and I thought might be a bit confusing. I had no time to complement your edit; I thought I'd do that later but temporarily roll it back—and then I forgot, I apologize. Commented May 12, 2014 at 3:31
  • 2
    @Cerberus If you want to show the form of a single letter and add that it "looks somewhat like" the Unicode dotless i, I see no problem. But you need to remember that you are (a) relying on the look of a specific font and the letter might look quite unexpectedly in another font that is installed on the machine of a user browsing this site, and (b) text on the internet is processed by automated processes like search engines or read by blind readers, both of which will find your claim that the ME "i" looks like the Turkish "ı" quite baffling. [contd.]
    – user32638
    Commented Apr 30, 2016 at 7:14
  • 1
    [contd.] For that reason, it is always better to use a graphic to represent specific letterforms. Also, your explanation would be more complete, if you explained that the dotless ME i could be confused with the strokes of m, n or u, because the form of these letters was different from the form we use today, too. And you might want to illustrate the problem, by showing that in ME handwriting the word "minim" looked like "ıııııııııı". Which is wrong, because the illustration lacks the connecting strokes. And what you write is beginning to be quite different from what you claim you are writing.
    – user32638
    Commented Apr 30, 2016 at 7:15

For reasons of typography. Minuscule "i" just gets lost.

From the article in NY Times:

England is where the capital “I” first reared its dotless head. In Old and Middle English, when “I” was still “ic,” “ich” or some variation thereof — before phonetic changes in the spoken language led to a stripped-down written form — the first-person pronoun was not majuscule in most cases. The generally accepted linguistic explanation for the capital “I” is that it could not stand alone, uncapitalized, as a single letter, which allows for the possibility that early manuscripts and typography played a major role in shaping the national character of English-speaking countries.

“Graphically, single letters are a problem,” says Charles Bigelow, a type historian and a designer of the Lucida and Wingdings font families. “They look like they broke off from a word or got lost or had some other accident.” When “I” shrunk to a single letter, Bigelow explains, “one little letter had to represent an important word, but it was too wimpy, graphically speaking, to carry the semantic burden, so the scribes made it bigger, which means taller, which means equivalent to a capital.”

The growing “I” became prevalent in the 13th and 14th centuries, with a Geoffrey Chaucer manuscript of “The Canterbury Tales” among the first evidence of this grammatical shift. Initially, distinctions were made between graphic marks denoting an “I” at the beginning of a sentence versus a midphrase first-person pronoun. Yet these variations eventually fell by the wayside, leaving us with our all-purpose capital “I,” a potent change apparently made for simplicity’s sake.

  • 5
    Funny how we can come up with two very different answers, even though they are probably equally right. Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 4:30
  • 4
    But then, why is vocative "O" usually capitalized too?
    – Alex
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 15:42
  • 4
    @Alex: Capitalization in the Middle Ages, and to a varying extent even up to 1900, was in many ways unpredictable; and, in so far as it was consistent, it often followed rules different from ours. I can only guess about "O". Capitals were mostly used when words were deemed important or venerable; since the word "O" usually expresses strong emotion, writers might have felt that it deserved the emphasis of a capital letter. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 0:31
  • 26
    Am igh so wrong to want to add back some nice logical silent letters, so there's no need for inconsistent capitalisation? Igh think it looks rather nice, though igh'm unsure about contractions.
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented Jan 17, 2011 at 6:09
  • 4
    @JonPurdy Yes yu ar.
    – Joe Z.
    Commented Jan 5, 2013 at 17:27

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.