How to make something seem Really Important

I’ve just completed editing a 24-page list of emerging technologies in which originating authors signaled the importance of concepts by reaching deep into the grab bag of power writing tools and Capitalizing Undeserving Words.

You know this trick. It is the writing equivalent of speaking loud during a dinner conversation in order to Command the Stage. It is a variation on the technique of using the word “major” to describe the momentousness of an event or product development. “In a major advancement, Global Solutions Corporation today announced…”

(This last one, by the way, never fails to amuse. In the absence of the adjective “major,” are other announcements then to be considered “minor”? As in: “In a minor development that is unlikely to reverberate terribly much, Innovative Silicon Materials Inc. announced the introduction of…”)

In my report, words subjected to needless capitalization seemed to revolve around three ambitions:

• To force-feed a weight of gravitas around subjects
• To “product-ize” things that aren’t really products
• To rationalize the follow-up use of abbreviations

The first desire is the most common culprit, and the easiest to expel. An example from my report: A committee of technologists, impressive people all, is deep into exploration of a new approach for building accessible hooks – bunches of pre-written code – into underlying software stacks. It must be important, because the author describes the work as an “Application Development Initiative.” Here, the intention is clear: Ignore, oh reader, and ye shall surely suffer. But bear in mind there’s no formal name being bestowed here. It’s just a description of what the committee is up to. Doesn’t survive the editor’s cut. Of similar mind: a writer contributes a short piece on the publication of a new report, calling it a “Technical White Paper.” Nope. I’m willing to capitalize the actual title of the paper, but not the description. We slash, we feel good. Still, I get the motivation. People want attention, want their work to Stand Out. There’s a sort of “that’ll show ‘em” satisfaction to slamming down crisply on the “shift” key to make a point. But in print, it always looks hollow and forced, and it’s perilously close to feeling like a whine. In print, describing your latest software creation as a “Cutting-Edge Decision Management Solution” makes you sound like a braying cow.

The second approach is to waver into the murky waters of “productization” when no product really exists, or when all we’re doing is describing things generically. Example: unnamed company wants to capitalize its “HTML5 User Interface Application.” Here, the app does indeed have a product name (a nice one) fully deserving the upper-case “W” with which it begins. But describing it as an “HTML5 user interface application” is just that: a description that explains what it is. Slashed and burned the caps on that one in a hurry.

Example 3 is where it’s easier to muster some sympathy. The tech world is full of geeky, multi-word descriptors that, once coined, take on the mantle of Tangible Creations that Must Be Capitalized. Examples I’ve met up with lately are “multiprotocol label switching” (or MPLS), a technique for abbreviating data path labels to sling information around telecommunications networks quickly; and “Digital Living Network Alliance” (or DLNA), a product certification organization devoted to digital device compatibility. In my example, I’m fighting the good fight by lower-casing the first (say what you will, engineers, but “multiprotocol label switching” isn’t a proper noun like “Ethernet”) while dutifully honoring the fact that the DLNA is a real, identifiable organization with bylaws and a trademark and all that official stuff. In both cases, though, the temptation to capitalize is strong partly because you know as a writer you’re about to tap the parenthesis key and get all acronym-y. I say: chill, breathe and keep that little finger away from the “shift” key. It’s perfectly fine to do your reader the favor of not repeating the term “multiprotocol label switching” seven times in the next two paragraphs, and instead adopt the handy slang of MPLS. Saves keystrokes, too. But don’t assume that just because you’re about to abbreviate, you have to capitalize the term on first reference. It’s tricky, I know, because there are oddities everywhere in tech. No disparity is more common than the treatment of “Internet,” which (here’s Wikipedia’s explanation) should be capitalized if it’s used as a proper noun (“the Internet”) but gets knocked down to common noun status case when used generically to describe an internal network (“an internet used by the company…”).

As usual, there’s a judgment call to be made in certain cases. When, for example, does a technology rise to the level of proper noun? Why do I feel pulled to capitalize the “quadrature” in “quadrature amplitude modulation” but to lower-case the entirety of “time-division multiplexing”? Why is that Long Term Evolution (LTE) begs for capitalization when in fact it’s simply a description (a boring one at that) for advancements in mobile communications technology?

If you want a desktop reference, Wired magazine’s Wired Style can help. But when on deadline and in doubt, here’s my advice: Err toward the lower case. Assume technologies, even the acronym-worthy kind, are usually processes and techniques, not proper nouns deserving of capitalization. It’s a small contribution to restraint, which is something the world needs. So join me, brave writers and editors. And remember: Your CTO’s work to Harmonize Digital Devices may be cool. But just not with a capital “c”.