Class Warfare Blog

June 23, 2020

Typography Evolves, Not Necessarily for the Better

Filed under: language,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 10:54 am
Tags: ,

I am a bit of a typography snob. I work as an editor and I work with people in their teens and their nineties. I note that people quite old tend to show some quirks of their past. For example, at one time English, as German still does, capitalized most nouns. We have moved away from that practice, but some older writers overcapitalize. It was also the practice to have a space before colons and periods which is no longer the practice, so as mentioned, things change.

There is also a slow morphing of compound nouns. In the 1930’s it was quite common to see to-day and to-morrow in print and now the hyphens are gone. This is a common process. A place in one’s home to have a fire becomes a fire-place and then a fireplace. The same thing happened to sail-boat, foot-path, black-face, skin-head, and dog-house.

Currently we are seeing another transition, one I hope does not stick. This is the recent practice of only capitalizing the first letter of an acronym, an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word, for example NASA. Back in my early days these things were typed out thus: N.A.S.A., F.B.I., and C.D.C. After a while we dropped the periods as being superfluous and so we got: NASA, FBI, CDC, CIA, SCOTUS, etc. This was acceptable because there were very few other situations in which words were formed from all capital letters. No one would be confused seeing NASA instead of N.A.S.A. But now I am seeing Nasa more often than not.

If the “all capitals” rule for acronyms is taken away, as is becoming the current practice, the possibility of confusion increases a great deal, especial for young or new readers of English. I tend to approve of such changes when they either (a) simplify communication or (b) make communication more accurate. In this case I don’t see what is saved. If I type <cap lock>,n ,a ,s, a, </cap lock> instead of <shift> n, a, s, a, I am not really saving a lot of effort.

I went to Wikipedia to consult a list of acronyms (and their ilk, such as initialisms) and I limited myself to just those starting with A and C.

Some of these, such as CAP, which stands for Civil Air Patrol, would easily be misunderstood if written as Cap, possibly referring to a piece of headgear, especially if the word begins a sentence, which always begin with a capitalized letter anyway. Others of this kind are:
FOE  Friends Of The Earth
ACE  Allied Command Europe
ADAGE  Air Defense Air to Ground Engagement (simulation)
AID  U.S. Agency for International Development
AM  Amplitude Modulation
CARP  Computed Air Release Point
CART  Championship Auto Racing Teams
CATS  Computer Active Technology Suspension
CIAO  Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office
CIS  Commonwealth of Independent States
COBRA  Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985
COIN  Counter-Insurgency (military)
COPE  U.K. Committee On Publication Ethics
CORE  Congress of Racial Equality
CREEP  Committee for the Re-Election of the President (Nixon)
Plus there are any number of these which could appear to be a person’s name, the first letter of which is typically capitalized.
TERI  Tata Energy Research Institute
ANA  All Nippon Airways
COLT  Combat Observation and Lasing Team (military)
CHiP  California Highway Patrol

Since these came from lists with just these two letters of the alphabet, I am sure there are hundreds of other terms that could also be sources of confusion.

I do not intend to adopt this new practice and hope that it dies out over time as being counterproductive.

How do such things get started? I do not know, but my guess is in magazines. Magazines are always looking for typographical ways to appear trendy, on the forefront of the topic they cover. Magazines are responsible for article and book titles now being formatted as if they were sentences (few are), which I believe emanated from ad copy. A header in an ad, if it appears to be a sentence with no “full stop” at the end encourages people to keep reading to find closure for the idea begun to be stated.

20 Comments »

  1. It seems to me whether you can get away with lower casing an acronym is case specific. Heavily used acronyms evolving into new words seems like another inevitable part of language evolution. But I agree that a newly introduced acronym in lowercase seems prone to causing pointless confusion.

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    Comment by SelfAwarePatterns — June 23, 2020 @ 12:39 pm | Reply

    • I don’t want to seem to be a caricature of the conservative described by Bill Buckley, standing on the road of progress with a hand up yelling “Stop!” I tend to be a punctuation minimalist, leaving out hordes of commas from time to time (while maintaining a devotion to the Oxford Comma … I contain multitudes!). I like to see new words coined, such as Trumpian to describe massive arrogance with nothing backing it up. I just don’t like to see mindless changes because, well as I learned in college (in the 1960’s!) that “change for change’s sake is the philosophy of a cancer cell.”

      On Tue, Jun 23, 2020 at 12:39 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 23, 2020 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

    • I was thinking the same thing. Once an acronym becomes a common word, I don’t think any capitalization is needed any more. Words like laser, modem, or scuba. But just capitalizing the first letter seems sloppy and confusing.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Ubi Dubium — June 23, 2020 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

      • For ordinary objects reducing them to ordinary nouns is fine, but for institutions, I think it is not wise. I guess we could be worse off. We could eschew vowels like the Hebrews or spaces between words like the Greeks … what were they thinking?! (Probably saving space … parchment was expensive.)

        On Tue, Jun 23, 2020 at 1:50 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Steve Ruis — June 23, 2020 @ 1:55 pm | Reply

  2. I saw this first in French-language and UK periodicals like Le Monde, Quora.fr, and Guardian before it became more widespread here in the US. I agree that ACORN is a much faster and easier to type than A.C.O.R.N. However, it’s not a great idea to turn ACORN into Acorn unless you are deliberately trying to confuse people and baffle the uninitiated.

    (I think leaving two spaces after a sentence-ending period can help remove ambiguity in a lot of cases. But who cares what I or you think, Steven!)

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    Comment by gfbrandenburg — June 23, 2020 @ 12:47 pm | Reply

    • Two spaces after was something of a typewriter based innovation, Traditionally it was but one, but for quite some time it was one (or two) after the period and one before. I remember reading Winston Churchill’s books and see those spaces, both before periods and before colons.

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 23, 2020 @ 1:45 pm | Reply

  3. I’m an author but have also spent over 30 years working professionally in publishing, including devising corporate grammar standards – wrestling with precisely this evolution of English. Acronyms become neologisms to the point where, now, they are actively created with that end in mind; compound nouns turn into new words. I think there has been a trend to ‘simplify’ (if you can call it that) over that time. Ultimately, the question is whether the clarity of meaning has been preserved. Into this has poured the computerisation of typography itself; the skill of the manual typesetter (already essentially gone when I started in the business) now wholly replaced by the arbitrary choices of the InDesign Paragraph Composer.

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    Comment by Matthew Wright — June 23, 2020 @ 5:44 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, it seems as if every business now has its own house style, manual and all. One of my publishers is cross training employees so they can switch positions whenever necessary, so developmental editors can work as copy editors, whatever. Of course, proof readers are long gone, leaving us to the mercy of “spell and grammar checkers.”

      On Tue, Jun 23, 2020 at 5:44 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 23, 2020 @ 9:50 pm | Reply

  4. My pet peeve is the apparent extinction of the practice of indenting the first line of a paragraph, and replacing it with a double space between paragraphs. I realize this started with the internet, but I’m not sure why. It accomplishes nothing that I can tell except waste space. At first it was found only on the internet, but it’s turning up in print publications now.

    P.S. I too hate the practice of only capitalizing the first letter of an acronym.

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    Comment by grouchyfarmer — June 23, 2020 @ 10:19 pm | Reply

    • Ah, but that practice was around before the internet. I suspect it developed as a solution to a common problem. A typographer was given the task of taking some sparse text and making a book from it. Instead of indents, blank lines indicated the divisions between paragraphs. and the text was stretched.

      I am not a fan. I indent all but the first para in a body of text (another pet peeve is people who indent the first line in a new block of text, as if the reader didn’t know something new was happening).

      But the whole idea of capitals, indents, spaces between words, chapters beginning on only right-hand pages, all of these things were invented somewhat recently, as were italics and any number of other inventions.

      Why HTML is clumsy regarding para indents I do not know. I wish it were otherwise. Every modification of that standard, of course makes files larger and slows things down, so there is some resistance to such “new features.”

      On Tue, Jun 23, 2020 at 10:19 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 24, 2020 @ 10:48 am | Reply

      • You have a good point there. Our system of spelling, capitalization and punctuation is all relatively new. I remember the difficulties I had dealing with how people wrote and printed documents when I had to do research back in college. Older German documents were – troublesome. I ran into a lot of personal correspondence and even printed documents that followed no grammatical rules at all. No punctuation, no standardized spelling, etc.

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        Comment by grouchyfarmer — June 24, 2020 @ 3:49 pm | Reply

        • HA! Imagine what it was like in the early bible days. Here, from my book, is something I came across …

          “This is what Bible text would have looked like if written in English prior to around 900 CE. It would have been in scriptio continua (continuous script), using only consonants and no vowels, capitalization, or punctuation, which is how early Hebrew was written.

          Nthbgnnnggdcrtdthhvnndthrthndthrthwswthtfrmndvdnddrknsswspnthfcfthdpnd

          (This is from Genesis 1. Can you figure it out?)

          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Nan — June 24, 2020 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

          • Good grief, I’d forgotten how horrid that kind of thing was. I can read it if I have to… ‘In the beginning god created the heavens and the earth…” but I get about that far and my brain sort of throws up its hands and gives up. 🙂 The only reason I can make sense of it at all is because I already know what the original text says.

            Liked by 1 person

            Comment by grouchyfarmer — June 24, 2020 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

            • Also, in the beginning of what? Was God around beforehand? If so, what was he doing? Playing with other universes?

              How people can take this metaphorical “wisdom literature” and insist it is factual and true is absolutely beyond me. Possibly the heartfelt desire of humans for strangenesses is behind it.

              On Wed, Jun 24, 2020 at 4:09 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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              Liked by 2 people

              Comment by Steve Ruis — June 25, 2020 @ 8:51 am | Reply

              • Genesis is, well, to put it bluntly, rather silly if you try to read it literally. Still, they do try. Heck, even the Catholics don’t take Genesis literally. Well, most of ’em don’t. The priests and nuns I had in school back then never tried to make us believe the bible was literally true. It was, they told us, like Jesus’ parables, metaphors and allegories intended to illustrate moral concepts and ideals.

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                Comment by grouchyfarmer — June 25, 2020 @ 9:37 am | Reply

                • Of course, their sensibilities only extend so far as to adopting the truth of “blame the victim.”

                  No Jewish scholars think that the Pentateuch is mostly an historical document. It seems to have been re-written during the Babylon episode to provide a deep background for the claim that the true leaders of Israel/Judah were those in Babylon, rather than those left behind.

                  On Thu, Jun 25, 2020 at 9:37 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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                  Comment by Steve Ruis — June 25, 2020 @ 9:44 am | Reply

          • This is an apologists godsend! They get to make up the vowels, word spacing, punctuation, chapters, etc.

            Which reminds me of Luke’s comma. Is Luke 23:39-43 “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” or is it “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in paradise.” See apologist’s godsend. Even commas, judiciously placed can change the meaning of scripture substantially.

            Of course, why a convicted thief gets into Heaven isn’t explained (“Jesus, he and I were like this .”)

            On Wed, Jun 24, 2020 at 3:56 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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            Liked by 2 people

            Comment by Steve Ruis — June 25, 2020 @ 8:48 am | Reply

        • I am enough of a geek to think that would be cool … unless I needed something from that document and then it might be a nightmare.

          When I was an undergrad, I used to hang out in one of Stanford U’s libraries and was there often enough that I got assistance from the staff. At one point, they unlocked a storage room full of 19th and early 20th century German chemistry journals and even though it was summer and the room had no ventilation (airconditioning was more rare back then) I remember many a happy hour struggling through references in those books, even when they were in Black Letter which was almost impenetrable to me.

          On Wed, Jun 24, 2020 at 3:49 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — June 25, 2020 @ 8:42 am | Reply

          • gads, I hated that German gothic style typeface! When I started learning to read in German we started out with books printed like that and it took me quite a while to adjust to it. Think it was called Fraktur… Yeah, that’s what Wikipedia calls it. After school when I no longer needed to use it I almost immediately forgot it, along with most of my German, and I don’t think I could read it at all now. Still, I had an easier time of it than a lot of others in those classes because my grandparents on both sides still spoke German.

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            Comment by grouchyfarmer — June 25, 2020 @ 9:31 am | Reply

            • You and me both … uh, not the grandparents, but I was president of the German club in my sophomore year! :o)

              On Thu, Jun 25, 2020 at 9:31 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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              Liked by 1 person

              Comment by Steve Ruis — June 25, 2020 @ 9:41 am | Reply


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