Capital Standards

Capital Standards Hidden Language

SCOTT: Back in 1999, I was writing and editing and photographing and eventing for a nonprofit in Chicago. We served people with disabilities throughout the city, helping them with housing and employment and counseling and other needs. My job was to produce a lot of public relations material — and this was before everything went digital, so we were still producing mainly print-based stuff: trifold brochures, annual reports, newsletters that were mailed to stakeholders. Not really any social media at the time. I would do everything from taking pictures and writing captions for those pictures to interviewing staffers and clients — that’s what we called the people we served: clients — and writing copy for stories and then designing and laying out publications for the copy. Typical jack-of-all-trades for a two-person department.

One of the things I did as well was to write press releases for the various media outlets across the city: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV. Now, if you know anything about writing for the media, even if it’s just reading news stories, let’s say — and I know there’s a lot of contention about whether we read like we used to or not; we certainly don’t — but if you pay attention to how a news story is written, you can pick out certain stylistic devices that journalists use. The standard bearer is the Associated Press style guide.

In 2020, the AP released its 55th edition, so it’s been around for a while — since the mid-1800s. And there is, thankfully, a helpful online version, so the AP can update its writing standards more frequently, as we see cultural, political, social aspects of the world moving so much faster now, forcing language to evolve much more quickly.  

You use the style guide like a dictionary or an encyclopedia. The guide gives suggestions and guidance on things like using punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. It provides guidance on larger topics such as reporting about COVID-19. The word COVID, for example, should be all-capped; that is, every letter — C-O-V-I-D — is capitalized. And it’s preferable to write “COVID-19” when writing about the virus, but you can use simply “COVID” when you need to shorten the term for space, such as in headlines.

The AP also guides writers on how to use inclusive language when writing about race, gender, sexuality, disability, and other cultural issues. 

Working for an organization advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, I paid particular attention to the disability section of the guide. This was back at the end of the last century, in the late 1990s, when we had to rely on a print version of the AP. And their guidance sometimes didn’t quite gel with our own standards of writing. We — and many in the disability community — had our own ideas about how we should be writing about disability culture. The pages of the Associated Press style guide had their own standards. Sometimes those two standards — ours and theirs — agreed. Many times not. And we fought to be heard. We fought for our own clients to be heard.


SCOTT: You’re listening to Hidden Language — a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Scott Lunsford.

JAY: And I’m Jay Varner. Today, Scott punctuates the need to look at how we identify ourselves and what happens when others try to do so for us.  


SCOTT: Have you ever thought about why we capitalize our names? You might not, until, maybe, you see a name that is intentionally not capitalized — or downcased, as we say in the biz. We recently lost the author and activist bell hooks, who downcases the initial letters of her name. Small letter b, small letter h. And she did so to take focus away from herself, to put the focus more on her books, on her work. But, of course, that choice is part of the identity that we associate with her. 

And so, it works the other way too: when we capitalize a word that isn’t normally capitalized, we’re making a choice about the identity reflected by that word. And this is something we fought for as an organization that helped people who fought for their own identities, who fought for their own voices to be heard in socio-political circles that rule by their own choices in using language in certain ways. You may have grown up with teachers who had their own set of language or grammar pet peeves, such as this:

Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction: so, don’t start a sentence with however or with and or with but. Why not? Do you believe in the serial comma?: adding a comma before the and in a series of at least three things in a list? Here’s another one I had an argument with a guy several years ago about another rule, one that he had learned from a teacher long ago and just couldn’t let go of. He said, “Oh, my teacher always said to never end a sentence with a preposition.” And, I said, “I’m not so sure about that. I’d have to look that one UP.”

You may have had teachers like that too. BUT you followed your teacher’s guidance because there were consequences if you didn’t. And those consequences come down to socio-political issues, like grades. Like status. Like not wanting to be judged because you have bad grammar, all according to one person who is in charge of assigning a grade. All because of someone who has different standards that you may have grown up with, that are steadfastly part of your own identity.

MUSIC change.

At the nonprofit, some of the constituents we served were Deaf. And when we wrote about them, we capitalized the “D”. Capital D, deaf. Doing so demonstrated that we were expressing a view about people who participated in the Deaf community, used American Sign Language as a way of communicating, who fought for the rights of others who were Deaf a nd had disabilities — though many in the Deaf community would not consider deafness a disability. So, capital D, deaf, is different from small-letter d, deaf, which is considered the audiological impairment of not being able to hear. We used capital D, deaf, in all of our literature for the agency — even the press releases. But back in 1999, there was not as much social guidance in the AP style guide. Nothing to reflect that capital D, Deaf, is preferable. And so, when I’d write press releases about an event or a fund-raiser in the Deaf community,     I’d write capital D, Deaf, and send the story to print publications — and there were a lot of them throughout Chicago. And when we’d see that story in print, many times the capital D, Deaf, would be downcased to the small-letter d, deaf. And I don’t know why. Is it because that was not the standard of that publication, or of the AP style guide, or because it looked different, or acted different? It’s one tall letter D, acting as a way to name, acting as a way to identify a community of people among a larger community who were constantly fighting to have a voice. And relying on writers, advocates, to help them. And so this one small linguistic, editorial move — to take down a capital letter and replace it with a small letter “d” acts as a way of stripping identity. As a way of continuing to block the voices of many. And even today, a quick online search — because we can do that now — reveals major newspapers may not themselves hear the voices who shout with a capital D, deaf. Capital D, Deaf, people are still silenced by a standard that remains to this day.

MUSIC change.

On June 19, 2020, during another summer of racial tension, the AP published an article on its website, arguing for their decision to uphold a new standard: capitalizing the word Black. They do so, they say, when it refers to “a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.The lowercase black is a color, not a person.” 

It had been, according to one Washington Post writer, that the word Black had been capitalized in 1970s journalism, but bumped up against the downcased word white, and both were kept lower case. 

A month after the decision to capitalize Black two years ago, the AP published another article, responding to that binary question again: why not capitalize the word white? Their response was this: “White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color. In addition, we are a global news organization and in much of the world there is considerable disagreement, ambiguity and confusion about whom the term includes. 

“We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”

Capitalizing, then, just like any other choice we make as writers, is not neutral. It is politically charged. It supports those who have fought to have a voice, and it questions those who seem to be threatened by that fight. 


SCOTT: You’ve been listening to Hidden Language. Music for this episode was written by Serge Quadrado, Sergey Cheremisinov, Edoy, and Tea K Pea. Our theme music by Jay Varner. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit And if you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see fit.



Music was provided by the following artists through, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.  

“Comfort” by Serge Quadrado, CC BY-NC 4.0

“Way to Silence” Sergey Cheremisinov, CC BY 4.0

“An Offering” by Edoy, CC BY-SA 4.0

“iknew” by Tea K Pea, CC BY-NC 4.0

One Comment

  1. This podcast reveals a hard-hitting addiction . . . that’s oh, so intriguing! The ‘perfect’ word and the ‘right’ punctuation are indeed possible, as long as there are writers with more gumption + editors with less power to arbitrarily change. One slight stroke of the keyboard can change everything: meaning, intent, interpretation, even history. Please keep exploring and sharing your findings!!

    Liked by 1 person


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