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What Is a Letter Case?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Letter case refers to the size and shape of a letter used in writing, usually with a distinction between upper and lower cases in a language like English. The purpose of this differentiation is to make reading in such a language easier, as the two cases allow for indication of various ideas. In English, for example, an upper case or capital letter is typically used at the start of each sentence, to indicate proper nouns, and for certain important words. Letter case as a practice came from the evolution of written language and the development of different sizes and styles in writing.

Not all languages inherently have different cases, and those that include more than one letter case can do so in various ways. In English, however, there are two basic cases that letters can be written in: upper case and lower case. Upper case letters, also referred to as capital or “majuscule” letters, are larger and often sit perfectly between a top and bottom line in writing, including letters like “A, B, C, D…X, Y, Z.” In contrast to this, lower letter case, or “minuscule,” make up the majority of letters written in any piece of Modern English language sample, they can go beyond the bottom line in writing and include the letters “a, b, c, d…x, y, z.”

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The purpose of letter case in a language like English is to make distinctions between words and ideas easier for a reader to identify. Even though punctuation is used at the end of a sentence, such as a full stop or period, the use of a capital or majuscule letter at the beginning of a sentence helps indicate the separation of ideas to a reader. Proper nouns are capitalized in English, allowing someone to more easily distinguish between names of places or people and common words. This use of letter case can help indicate meaning. For example, the use of “president” is used to refer to the job in general, while “President” would designate the title of a particular individual.

As written language evolved and developed over centuries, so too did the establishment of letter case in writing. Initial texts consisted of only majuscule or capital letters. As more people began writing using pens and ink, however, the style of writing began to change and minuscule letters were introduced to create greater contrast and flow within the text.

The transition from hand-written texts to those created with a printing press introduced the term “letter case.” Physical letters for use on a press were kept in separate cases, with the “lower case” holding minuscule letters. As this term entered popular usage, people then established the phrase “upper case” to indicate the majuscule letters. This is not entirely accurate, as the upper case of a printing press could also contain punctuation and other marks, but its meaning is well established.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books