Generation Y
May 27, 2015

Subtle dangers of lower-case letters

Subtle dangers of lower-case letters

Have you noticed that, in national news articles, reporters increasingly tend to quote statements that emerge from the Twitter pages—rather than the actual mouths—of public figures?

I’m not writing to complain about this. Twitter is a popular medium for trivial and nontrivial communication alike. Most politicians and celebrities use it. Tweets can be important; they can be essential news.

I just would like to observe that, in news articles, the verb that (naturally) accompanies these Twitter quotations is “tweet” (which, according to Merriam-Webster, means “to post a message to the Twitter online messaging service”), as in “‘I am sincerely sorry if I offended anyone,’ the actor tweeted”—and that the first letter in the word “tweet” is not capitalized.

We can all agree that Twitter itself is a product, a company, a registered trademark: in short, a proper noun. It gets a capital letter. The word “tweet” in this context is a direct reference to Twitter. It, too, is a registered trademark, owned by Twitter. To capitalize “Twitter” but not “tweet” is like capitalizing “Schweppes” but not “Schweppervescence,” or capitalizing “Burger King” but not “Whopper.”

Although “tweet” tends to go lower-case even when it’s employed as a noun, the mistake (if I may somewhat mistakenly call it that—a linguist wouldn’t refer to it as such) probably owes to its usage as a verb. Verbs look awkward with capital letters, and as a result, we also have both “Google” and “google.” For example: “Google earned $17 billion last quarter”—that gets a capital letter. “Before our blind date, I googled her name”—that, customarily, gets a lower-case letter.

Lower-case usages of “google” and “tweet” bear some resemblance to genericized trademarks like “xerox” and “band-aid”—terms that emerged from companies that became so dominant within their respective fields that people forgot the words “copy machine” and “adhesive bandage.” But there’s a difference: when the word “band-aid” is used generically, it deserves a lower-case letter, since it no longer refers to a specific product made by a specific company—it refers to a broad category of products that resemble the product called “Band-Aid” by Johnson & Johnson.

On the other hand, when we write a lower-case “google” or “tweet,” we are still referring to one specific product made by one specific company. When Xerox was at its peak, you could still xerox a document on a machine that was not made by Xerox. But you can’t “google” on anything except Google, and you can’t “tweet” anywhere except Twitter.

The lower-case letter has a normalizing effect, and it suggests that, when we google or tweet something, we no longer feel as though we are engaging the services of a for-profit company or partaking of a commercial product. Rather, Google and Twitter have become, for us, natural parts of the universe. We walk, we talk, we breathe, we google, we tweet.

It looks right: after all, the seemingly equivalent verb “email” gets a lower-case letter (justly, however, since “email” is not linked to any particular corporate entity). Still, for me, it brings to mind the dystopian future of a cheesy sci-fi novel, in which corporations have infiltrated our lives to such a degree that we no longer register a difference between “coca-cola” and “water.”

Have Twitter and Google become too powerful, like the A.I. supervillain in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (which I still haven’t seen)? Only time will tell.

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