The Import of All Caps


Let’s be clear: using ALL CAPS in texting and on Facebook isn’t just about yelling anymore.

Now, I must admit that I don’t actually have definitive evidence that in the early days of email and texting, writing in all capital letters was used only to express anger, but that was certainly all caps’ reputation. And typing in all caps, by accident or on purpose, might elicit the response: “Stop yelling.”

You can still find netiquette advice online about why it isn’t nice to type in all caps because it means you are shouting at people.

The students in my course “How Conversations Work,” though, have been filling me in on the multiple other uses of all caps.

For the most part, all caps continue to indicate increased volume: as one student eloquently put it, “I read them louder.” But the volume is more often about excitement or emphasis than anger.

Students shared some real examples from their own texts for me to include in this post. Here are a few examples that show excitement all caps:

  • AHHHHH!!!! THAT IS FANTASTIC NEWS! I knew you would!! I am so, soooo proud of you!!!

In the first example, exclamation marks complement the all caps. In the second, the added letters in the exclamation (YAAAAYY) also capture excitement. But in the third, the all caps alone show the texter’s excitement about this news.

Emphatic all caps, a device that appears in other written registers as well, appears in these sample texts:

  • I LOVE this one!
  • The mall doesn’t open til ELEVEN.
  • I knew it was going to happen!!!!! WHEN?!!

The emphatic volume implied by all caps can also help texters show they are really laughing, now that “LOL” no longer usually indicates laughing:

  • HAH I choose wisely

Students report that, in addition, the emphatic all caps can help highlight a punchline of a story, as in the following example:

  • I was playing with tea lights and somehow ended up getting candle wax everywhere. Including INSIDE my pants. Not sure how that happened.

Perhaps more surprising to me, because it departs from the higher-volume connotations of all caps, is the use of all caps to indicate sarcasm. One possibility is to send the entire sarcastic message in all caps:


But all caps can also usefully distinguish a sarcastic comment from the rest of a text, as in:

  • I was throwing up all night. GREAT RESTAURANT.

Texting must compensate for the lack of physical cues we have in face-to-face conversation for determining emotional content, including: facial expressions, tone and volume of the voice, hand gestures and other aspects of body language. Conventional punctuation marks are being repurposed to express emotion: For example, “okay” is neutral, but “okay.” (with the period) is a little bit stern if not a little bit angry, and “okay…” (with ellipsis) is downright unhappy and/or skeptical. Writing in all caps can do some of the expressive work too, especially for excitement and emphasis—and now some sarcasm too.

One student, as she left the room after the all-caps discussion, stopped to add this note about another way to express excitement: intentional misspelling. In other words, by taking the time to intentionally misspell a word, you can indicate to others the excitement you’re feeling that would—at least theoretically—cause you to type so fast you would misspell the word (e.g., “you must be kiddign!!”)

Many thanks to the students in my course for continuing to clue me in to the many inventive ways they are capturing emotion on the screen of a phone. I can’t help but be impressed by their use of the limited options on their keyboards to convey subtle interpersonal communications.

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