Now Hear This: Navy Abandons All Caps By Julian E. Barnes

Wall Street Journal
June 13, 2013
Pg. 1

Official Communications, Long Written Large, Can Use Mixed Case; No Shouting


Since the 19th century, all official Navy communications have been written that way, a legacy of primitive technology combined with the service’s love of tradition.

But in the modern age, young sailors more accustomed to texting on their phones consider TYPING IN ALL CAPS akin to shouting. Typographers, meanwhile, have long maintained that all-caps text is hard on the eyes.

So the Navy, amid a modernization of its communications system, decided it would make its official messages more readable—and potentially less rude.

In an April order delivered in all capital letters, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command announced sailors were “AUTHORIZED TO USE STANDARD, MIXED-CASE CHARACTERS IN THE BODY OF NAVY ORGANIZATIONAL MESSAGES.”

It noted, however, that sailors shouldn’t go crazy. Standard mixed-case sentences were only appropriate for the body of the text.


Because of legacy systems that use the old all-caps Teletype language, the Navy could only make the shift after adopting a new messaging system it is moving to this year. The system has the added benefit of using fewer computer servers and costing $15 million less a year to operate.

The Navy was not unconcerned about the tender feelings of young sailors.

“If an ancillary benefit is that sailors reading message traffic no longer feel they’re being screamed at…that is a good thing too,” said a Navy official. The official insisted the move was not an example of the service going soft.

Vice Adm. Herbert F. Leary wrote in June 1942 to Adm. Chester Nimitz after the latter’s victory at the Battle of Midway: “ALL HANDS HERE WATCH GRAND SHOW NEAR MIDWAY AND SEND ADMIRING BEST WISHES AND CONGRATULATIONS X KEEP EM SINKING.” It might not have looked as jubilant if Adm. Leary had written instead, “keep em sinking.”

The Navy acknowledges not everyone is happy with the change. “Some of the fleets were stuck in their ways and really wanted to keep the all-caps,” said James McCarty, the Naval messaging program manager at Fleet Cyber command. “But it was inevitable. It had to happen.”

Some senior officers believe once the ALL CAPS disappear, any number of strange characters might enter Navy orders, such as @, % or even—gasp—emoticons.

Mr. McCarty says he doesn’t think emoticons will appear in official Navy communications. “Someone could put a smiley face or a heart in there. It may very well happen,” he said. “But it would be the last thing that person ever does.”

Early Teletypes of all kinds had limited numbers of characters and as a result did not use lowercase letters. Into the early 1990s, Dow Jones Newswires, the news service of the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, was still sending some dispatches in all capital letters. Today, the Associated Press style guide sternly admonishes news writers to avoid writing in all capital letters. So, too, do editors on Wikipedia, who are commanded to render all-caps headlines from past issues of newspapers, such as “WAR BEGINS TODAY,” in standard sentence case.

A number of Army officers say they hope their service will take a cue from the Navy and abandon all caps orders.

“There is nothing worse than trying to read crap in all caps,” said an Army officer. “I don’t know why after we stopped using Teletype machines someone didn’t say we should stop writing in all caps.”

All Pentagon official communications used all-caps until 1998, officials said. Indeed any memo, order or directive from before 1998 screams out in all caps. Other services and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization still use capital letters for military orders and fragmentary orders.

Some officers say keeping official communications in all caps conveyed a sense of urgency important in military orders. But typographical experts say that writing in all caps is not actually the best way to get your point across.

“Having long stretches of text in all caps is hard on the eye,” said Alexander Tochilovfky, an adjunct professor specializing in the history of typography at Cooper Union in New York. “Our brains are trained to recognize a mix of caps and lowercase.”

Mixed-case letters, Mr. Tochilovfky said, offer easy “anchors” for readers. Street signs, he noted, are gradually moving from all capital letters to a mix of upper and lowercase.

The Navy’s change was first reported in the Navy Times newspaper.

Some retired officers think changing messages to adapt to the tastes of a younger generation is a slippery slope that could lead to disaster. Or Twitter.

“My initial reaction was OMG, what are we doing?” said retired Rear Adm. John Hutson. “I am sure it would benefit the younger sailors if all the orders were issued at 140 characters in length.”

Still, Adm. Hutson said on reflection he thinks the change makes sense, because sometimes whether something is or is not capitalized is important, and if you have to write in all caps, you lose that nuance.

The Navy League of the United States, a Navy lobby group, thinks the change to mixed-case lettering is a “CAPITAL” idea, wrote Kevin Traver, vice president and a former Marine.

LCDR (that is still the Navy style, ALL-CAPS, for Lieutenant Commander) John Salvato, a pediatrician at Portsmouth Naval Base, welcomed the Navy’s decision to join the ranks of the lowercased.

“It has always been hard to decipher what was important information from what was just extra protocol jargon,” he said. “It will certainly make interpreting and reviewing my orders easier to understand.”

But not everywhere in the Navy, just yet: A handful of old Navy messaging terminals can’t handle messages written in both cases. These old machines use a protocol called RIXT, or Remote Information Exchange Terminal and the Navy will begin replacing the last of these machines this year.

That means—at least in some messages—the Navy will continue shouting through 2015.

—Andrew Aylward contributed to this article.

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