science of us

13 Reasons We Type in Lowercase

Photo: NY Media

The way we type can often feel like adding flair to a school uniform. There’s only so much we can do, but there’s also a lot we can do. We can add emojis and acronyms, use inventive punctuation, type like thiiiiis, and choose lowercase in instances that traditionally call for uppercase. The title and track list on Ariana Grande’s latest album, for instance — “thank u, next” — are all in lowercase, and so are her Twitter and Instagram accounts. Reading them does make you feel closer to her, in a way: It sounds as if she’s speaking quietly, or sending you a handwritten note.

Sometimes I tweet in lowercase in an attempt to sound funny. A friend of mine emails exclusively in lowercase, and getting them feels like hearing her actual voice. A woman I know recently apologized to me for sending an email all in lowercase, which was touching and seemed unnecessary, but since we didn’t know each other well, it also felt like a complicated compliment (that she’d have been comfortable enough to email me in lowercase in the first place, but uncomfortable enough about it to think it was worthy of an apology).

Is it cool to type in lowercase? Is it lame? Does it all depend? While typing in lowercase seems simple — it’s casual, it’s easy — it signals an array of sophisticated/nuanced approaches. You can wear lowercase like a costume. It can be evil, it can be gentle. It can be light, it can be dark. And so, here’s a sort-of-comprehensive list of all the reasons we type in lowercase, specifically in email and DMs.

Typing in lowercase signals familiarity. It says: “We know each other and don’t need to be fancy.” Lowercase text can read as honest, unedited, and approaching something like a stream of consciousness — more like actual speech.

It’s faster and easier to type in lowercase, so when it’s valuable to be quick and natural (or to seem that way), like on IM, lowercase is often the default.

Casualness (real)
Messages typed all in lowercase can feel more offhand. The stakes feel lower, the vibe is calm. The first staff-wide email that David Haskell, the new editor-in-chief of New York Magazine, sent out was typed entirely in lowercase. I asked him about what it meant recently over Slack. “Low key?” he responded. And it was true; it had seemed that way. It was maybe even why I felt comfortable chatting him about his intentions behind an email in the first place, which I now feel weird about.

Casualness (false)
Similarly, typing in lowercase (or inconsistent lowercase) can be a sign that someone is trying to convey casualness, even if they’re not actually feeling casual. For instance, if you want to conceal how long an email to a potential romantic partner took you to write, and how much you care about what the recipient thinks of it/you, it can be useful to go back in and change some of the “I’s” to “i’s” — inconsistently — to make it seem more dashed off. Is this pathetic? Yes. Is it a good idea? No. Does it show? Yes, probably. That’s never stopped me, though.

Trickery (Slack-related and beyond)
Sometimes typing in lowercase can mean you’re trying to cover your tracks. Slack, the office chat room app, automatically capitalizes the first letter of messages typed on phones. A capitalized Slack message is therefore often a giveaway that someone is away from their desk. Which can be fine — sometimes you’re just commuting — but other times going back and manually re-lowercasing your messages can indicate an attempt to convince people you’re somewhere you’re not.

For people who spent their formative years using programs like Microsoft Word, which automatically capitalize things like “I” and the beginnings of sentences, finding and holding down the shift button over and over, in email and DMs, can feel like an old-fashioned and pointless burden.

Deadpan flatness/humor
Typing in lowercase can also signal a flatness that amplifies certain jokes. Using lowercase in these instances can also make the joke/statement seem more like it appeared on its own, or from the side of someone’s mouth — asides verging on ventriloquism.

Lowercase names can appear fresh and youthful, as with certain brands or publications. This happened to me, in fact — I started a publication (a comics section called spiralbound) with a lowercase letter in an attempt to look cool and communicate a stylized vibe, although each time I typed about it in emails, I’d reflexively capitalize it, and then go back and un-capitalize it, and I felt like an idiot. Eventually I changed it to capitalized, and it was a relief.

Sometimes typing things in lowercase communicates a droning quality, or an endlessness — similar to the deadpan flatness, but slightly different.

Lowercase-ness can also make things seem gentler and more tentative — almost apologetic. “oh i was just thinking …” I once got an email from a musician who’d made a mixtape with an all-lowercase title (his artist name was all in lowercase, too), and in the description, he wrote, in third person: “no, he doesn’t care if anyone capitalizes it. and no, he doesn’t think he’s k.d. lang or ee cummings. (the latter, who, by the way, I just learned did not insist on the lack of capitalization.)”

This is true about E.E. Cummings, and while confirming it, I enjoyed this fact: One Cummings biography included a preface from a critic who stated with certainty that Cummings had legally changed his name to lowercase letters. When Cummings’s widow read this, she wrote a letter to the author, saying: “You should not have allowed [the critic] to make such a stupid & childish statement about Cummings & his signature.” The biographer later wrote, for the record, “Cummings’ name should have the usual caps … [and] we hope the dismal lowercase custom will disappear from the face of the earth.” Cummings signed his own name inconsistently, but the myth that he went by “ee cummings” is apparently an extension of his tendency to use “i” instead of “I” in his poems (and not something he put forward himself).

Sometimes we’re tired. Or we want to show/share that we’re tired. yeah idk

It can be cute and a little flirtatious to type in lowercase letters. It makes you feel cute to type it, too, sometimes. Sort of like dotting your i’s with hearts. I’d say this is mostly a female thing, but guys do it, too. I’m not sure where this fits, but a guy I went on a couple dates with emailed me exclusively in lowercase. The messages were sophisticated and concise, and he was attractive, and the overall effect was of confidence and modesty. Hard to pull off, though. Sort of like BDE, but more like bde.

I include this grudgingly, but a friend of mine told me that her boyfriend once asked her to stop using “i” because he thought it signaled that she didn’t respect herself. Her boyfriend, though, was 500,000 years old.