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February 19, 2012  |  The heartbreak of RCS  |  60384 hit(s)

Millions of Americans have it without even suspecting. But what they don't know definitely can hurt them. Are you a secret sufferer?

Take this simple test

Study these texts:
Turn Left at 148th Ave SE
Go 1/2 mile and turn Left at SE 117th St
Turn Right at 150th Ave SE
Head straight into our Parking Lot
First we’ll create some Model classes to represent Genres and Albums within our store. [#]

These should look wrong to you. If they don't, then you, too, probably suffer from Random Capitalization Syndrome, or RCS.

What is it?

RCS causes writers to capitalize Words that they think are Important. It is related to, but not the same as, CEWIASS (Capitalize Every Word in a Sentence Syndrome), which often affects children, and it's not to be confused with CELS (Capitalize Every Letter Syndrome), which is sometimes known by the colloquial name SHOUTING.

Where does RCS come from?

Science is still working on the question of where RCS comes from. Theories that have been proposed include the following.

The "German 101" Theory
Sufferers from RCS might have been exposed at a critical time in their writing development to German 101, where students learn that all Nouns are capitalized:

Der Mann legte das Buch auf den Tisch.
(The Man laid the Book on the Table.)

This theory is considered flawed, however, because a significant percentage of RCS sufferers took French instead.

The "Declaration of Independence" Theory
Another theory holds that RCS sufferers have spent an inordinate amount of time studying 18th-century texts, which exhibit historical evidence of RCS:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Critics of the theory point out that this seems like an unlikely explanation, because for all the discussion about those documents, no one ever actually reads them.

The "Winnie-the-Pooh" (WtP) Theory
A more plausible theory is that RCS victims learned to read via the books of A. A. Milne, especially those featuring a Bear of Very Little Brain (who would sometimes Think of Things). It's believed that RCS sufferers might have learned to read from sentences like these:
He was getting rather tired by this time, so that is why he sang a Complaining Song.

I have discovered that the bees are now definitely Suspicious.

If I know anything about anything, that hole means Rabbit, and Rabbit means Company. And Company means Food and Listening-to-Me-Humming and such like.
Proponents of the theory believe that early exposure to WtP affects the ability of young children to form clear ideas about capitalization — a kind of reverse Interference Theory that renders impotent any subsequent Language Arts classes in the middle school years.

(Efforts at holding the estate of A. A. Milne liable for widespread RCS have so far proved fruitless.)

Why is it a problem?

Although victims of RCS often don't recognize that they have the affliction, or consider it only mild (similar to those who suffer Socks-With-Sandals Syndrome), RCS has potentially serious long-term effects. These include:
  • RCS reduces readability.

    To plop it into the middle of a sentence for no good reason gives the brain a micro-second freeze that interrupts comprehension.

  • RCS reduces credibility.

    To the trained eye, the capitalized words above scream "amateur" and are a huge distraction. They also make me want to put down whatever I'm reading and never pick it up again. If it's a book, that means I won't recommend it because I won't finish it. If the errors are on the author's website, bio, or other marketing materials, it stops me from picking up the book at all.

  • RCS annoys the sh*t out of people.

People who suffer RCS are also at significantly higher risk of contracting Quotation Marks for Emphasis Disorder (QMFED) and Underlining Words Instead of Italicizing Them Malady (UWIOITM).

What can victims do?

Recommended treatment for RCS is for the patient to undergo an intense course of study of the rules of English capitalization. The length of treatment depends on the severity of the affliction and on how responsive the patient is to treatment.

Victims can sometimes alleviate the worst symptoms by using a high-quality spelling-checker program. However, until a cure is effected, the victim is advised to pass every text they write past an editor.

RCS is considered in remission when patients can cite a specific rule for when they capitalize a word, and that none of those "rules" include the following:
  • "To emphasize the word."
  • "Because it's an important word."
  • "Because I like the way it looks."

Please help us

If you know someone who suffers from RCS, urge them to seek treatment as soon as possible. And help us raise awareness of this tragic affliction. Educate writers about RCS at every opportunity. Monitor children carefully for early symptoms. Above all, don't let a writer convince you that the symptoms are "fine" or that "no one cares about that." All too often, the effects of RCS are felt too late.

Anne Janzer   23 Feb 12 - 9:12 AM

This is brilliant - great diagnosis! I always leaned towards the German 101 theory of capitalization, but now I'm thinking Winnie the Pooh is more persuasive.

Sara Rosinsky   26 Feb 12 - 7:45 AM

This is brilliant! Delightful! Thank you for writing it.

I have noticed that marketing people almost always suffer from this random-capitalization disease. I can't figure out if it's some convention they've been exposed to in school, or if they just like to imbue what they do with importance. I suspect both. Whatever the reason, it's maddening, as noted in your third bullet.

Your blog post is a comfort to me, somehow. I'll think of you at work tomorrow, no doubt, as I read about Shelf Toppers and Store Managers and whatnot.


Imogen   23 Oct 13 - 7:15 AM

I enjoyed this blog very much, but a small grammatical error caught my eye, you lucky blogger. In the following sentence, "that" should be "when", to agree with "when" in the first clause. I Hope you Appreciate this Well-Intentioned Advice.

RCS is considered in remission when patients can cite a specific rule for when they capitalize a word, and that none of those "rules" include the following:


Static   19 Mar 14 - 9:36 PM

While I totally agree with the subject and goal of your post, I need to mention that one of your examples is in fact invalid:
"First we’ll create some Model classes to represent Genres and Albums within our store."
In certain programming languages the syntax (and/or the coding guidelines) of the language require capitalization (first letter or all letters of the work or even CamelCase form) of specific language constructs (such as classes, methods, reserved words, etc.).
Funnily enough, this is done to help the understanding the code as it is easier to recognize what language element is referred to. While this kind of capitalization is rather disrupts the understanding of free text, the programmer's brain is generally adjusted (or even hooked on) this writing style. Of course, in many cases you can find the equivalent or RCS in program codes too.
Please, replace the example with another one; I am afraid you can easily find one anywhere you look.

mike   20 Mar 14 - 7:35 AM

Hi, Static. Thanks for your comment.

I actually picked the example you mention deliberately, because it illustrates a something I've seen about a million times--namely, the use of a name for a formal entity (e.g., a class) used as a generic noun.

If you look at the source page where I got this example, you'll note that the author actually has created the classes Genre and Album, not Genres and Albums. However, in the sentence I cite, he's using these names to refer generically not to the classes themselves, but to what those classes actually represent. There are no Genres or Albums entities in the framework of the example, and trying to use (e.g.) Genres would result in a compilation error.

In fact, the author is using class names, which cannot be inflected as English words, generically as nouns. What he means is this:
First we'll create some Model classes to represent genres and albums within our store.
It's easily arguable that Model classes should also not be capped, for the same reason.

I edited stuff like this for years and years, and I saw this every day. (Or, gah, things like "After you've PRINTed the file, [...]" i.e., using keywords as inflected verbs.)

We solved this problem by always and only using keywords as qualifiers, never as nouns or verbs themselves:

the Album class
a Genre instance
the Print command

This removed any ambiguity about whether we were referring to the actual entity, and clarified when we were actually just referring to the entity or action being represented.

Diana Endo   10 Dec 14 - 4:05 PM

RCS has been driving me nutty. It is occurring in Subtitles with more and more Frequency. Just random Words here and There. I loved the Examples.

Eric L   09 Jul 16 - 4:47 PM

I see a lot of RCS in non-native writers of English....check out internet dating sites, you can pick out the offshore scammers in a second by their tres weird Capitalization. I used to be amused and now I just mumble darkly to myself, shut off the computer and head to the beach.