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NAGRAT or Nagrat?: The role of capital letters (II)

Sun, 15 Jun 2014 Source: Pacas, Idris

To begin, I clarify these terms: capitalizing and uppercasing. To capitalize a word means to write only the initial letter as capital (eg, Moon and Kufuor), but to uppercase a word or a heading is to write all the letters as capitals (eg, CJA and NUGS). To lowercase a word is to write all the letters as small (eg, femur /fiima/, pestle /pesl/ and coyote /kai-yo-ti/).

Linguists use capitalization as one of the most powerful tools to produce new words. Thus, in most cases, lowercased and capitalized words may be related but they take on different meanings (eg, west, referring to where the Sun sets & West, referring to Europe and the Americas). Therefore, never conclude that writing a capital letter is a matter of choice.

From Part I, we learnt that ALL CAPS are used for initialisms (eg, PPP and URL) and for only those acronyms representing proper nouns which have ‘counterpart’ common nouns (eg, GNAT for teachers’ association to avoid any confusion with ‘Gnat/gnat’, an insect). Acronyms denoting proper nouns are, however, capitalized in BrE where they lack an equivalent common noun (eg, Nato and Unicef). Today, we look at another type of abbreviation in which all caps are used. Examples of such abbreviations are IUPAC, JPEG, MPHIL and CD-ROM. These abbreviations are pronounced as mixture of individual letters and as words (ie, IUPAC /i-u-pak/, JPEG /j-peg/, MPHIL /m-fil/, CD-ROM /c-d-rom/).

Unlike acronyms and initialisms, the above category of abbreviations lack a definite term in English language (?). I propose the term ‘ini-acronym’, a blend of the terms ‘initialism’, referring to pronouncing the first part as individual letters and ‘acronyms’, reflecting that the second part is to be pronounced as a word. The hyphen tells readers that ‘ini’ is a syllable eliminating the tendency of pronouncing the term as ‘inia-cronym’ (compare unionize /u-nio-naiz/, meaning to form unions & un-ionize /an-ayo-naiz/, meaning does not form ions as in noble gases).

Thus, ini-acronyms are differentiated from words in CamelCase (eg, ProCredit and SolarWorld). Apart from having intervening small letters, a CamelCased word is pronounced fully as one word (eg, iPad /ai-pad/ and PowerPoint). Thus, in situations where a CamelCased word must be written/typed in all caps, the capital letters are written/typeset bigger than the smaller ones (eg, PROCREDIT and SOLARWORLD). The difference in the sizes of the letter tells readers that only the small caps will be lowercased, while the bigger caps will remain capitalized (eg. SUPERSPORT = SuperSport).

What does the above tell us? —That academic writing is impregnated with rules backed by logic. We see some of these in WAEC past papers: RELIGIOUS AND MORAL EDUCATION. What does the difference in size of the letters represent? That RELIGIOUS AND MORAL EDUCATION will be rewritten as Religious and Moral Education? Oh No! And why? Subject names are common nouns (see Part I). Thus, in a sentence where this subject name does not appear at the beginning, it will be written as follows: I like religious and moral education, mathematics and French. Consequently, I suggest Waec (sorry WAEC) avoid that practice.

Only aesthetics that promotes clarity and visibility are welcomed in papers of high-stakes test. A good example is seen when oxidation numbers of chemical elements are typeset/written. Apart from nickel, all other element names end in median letters (eg, e, n, m and ‘t’). Thus, typesetting oxidation numbers in small caps is preferable, because the practice eliminates visual traffics in the text. For example, compare iron(II) and iron(II). You realise that the oxidation number, II, in iron(II) is at the same level with the other letters, promoting easy flow of visual traffic, while the ‘II’ in iron(II) are so tall that they are mechanical obstructers to the eyes. See any standard chemistry book (eg, the one written by GAST).

In addition to the above, two important facts are to be learnt here. —That the oxidation numbers are always in capital Roman numerals and that the numerals are typeset solid (ie, no space is inserted between the element name and the oxidation number, eg, copper(I) and not copper (I). Logic supports the second fact, because the oxidation number is part of the name of the cation and must always appear on the same line with it. Inserting a space between them may cause the charge to stray onto the next line of text or students may be tempted to consider them as separate units and may thus write them on separate lines.

Many of our ‘quasi’-science authors seem unaware of the second provision. For example, in Aki-Ola integrated science textbooks for both JHS and SHS, the authors inserted spaces between the element names and the charges. Why? God save our students. Worse violations of these basic IUPAC nomenclatural rules are seen in Waec past papers. For example, carbon (ii) and carbon (iv) are seen in BECE integrated science 2010 (No. 10). God will soon be fed up with saving our students, for we have a role to play.

Returning to our abbreviations, we find that ini-acronyms are further distinguished from some variants in the sciences especially those in biotechnology. Examples are ATPase /a-t-pase/ short form of adenosine triphosphatase and DNase/d-n-eis/ short form of deoxyribonuclease. Though pronounced like ini-acronyms, these biotech abbreviations have smaller letters representing the portion pronounced as a word. The second category of biotech abbreviations includes mRNA /messenger RNA/, and tRNA /transfer RNA/. Again, notice that the small letters are pronounced by the words which they represent. Here, under no circumstance shall you write ‘MRNA’ or ‘TRNA’ for mRNA and tRNA respectively. For this reason, these abbreviations never begin sentences (say: I added mRNA. not: MRNA or Mrna was added.)

Before leaving our lessons on all types of abbreviations thus far discussed—initialisms, acronyms and ini-acronyms—we look at what these abbreviations stand for. All the words represented by the individual letters in the abbreviations are called expansion (eg, WHO = World Health Organization and ROM = read-only memory).

Two important things are learnt from the above. First, that the words represented by the letters in some abbreviations are capitalized (eg, URL= Universal Resource Locator) but those represented by some letters are lowercased (eg, HIV = human immunodeficiency virus). The tendency here is for many teachers to disregard this difference thereby allowing students to expand every acronym or initialism as capitalized words. [It is common in ICT (eg, BECE 2011, Section A, No. 9) to see GUI expanded as ‘Graphical User Interface’ instead of as ‘graphical user interface’). Cross-check please!

Another good reminder here is that ICT stands for ‘information and communications technology’ (notice the ‘s’ at the end of communications; it implies that the discipline teaches several methods of communication including emailing, phone-calling, letter writing, faxing, ‘facebooking’ and ‘whatsapping’. Compare WAEC which stands for West African Examinations Council implying that the council administers different types of exams.

Many ‘authors’ of ICT textbooks carelessly or ignorantly omit the ‘s’ (eg, Wilson OP, Donsimon QA and Daniel DE did so in their book named Don Series & Theodore KM also in her book My Computer Trainer ‘Activity Bk 2). Isn’t it surprising that authors who claimed to have based their books on GES syllabus could not see the correct spelling of the subject name in the syllabus? If not in Ghana, where else? WAEC echoes the same mistake in its BECE papers.

The second and more dangerous misinterpretation is to take the expansion as the meaning of the abbreviation (eg, A question might read ‘What is the full meaning of RAM?’ Here, the ‘accepted’ answer, taking from OED (7th Ed.), is ‘RAM is computer memory in which data can be changed or removed and can be looked at in any order’). Compare another acronym ‘scuba’ which means an apparatus for breathing underwater consisting of a portable canister of compressed air and a mouthpiece (Microsoft Encarta, 2009). Here, we note that if the required answer is the words represented by the letters, the question should read ‘What does RAM stand for? Thus, the answer is RAM = random access memory.

Logic supports the above argument because if your ‘half-way’ educated mom asks this: ‘What does HIV mean?’ You wouldn’t just say ‘human immunodeficiency virus’, but you may say ‘HIV is the virus that can cause AIDS’. Therefore, any time the expansion of an abbreviation is required, a simple question could be ‘expand the abbreviation ATP’.

Part III focuses on some justifiable uses of capital letters in the sciences. Consider dropping a comment.

Long live practising teachers! Long live Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana! Idris Pacas: 020 910 153 3

Columnist: Pacas, Idris