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.

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