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ASTC insights

Is progress always a good thing?


By Janet Taylor.  Janet is an active member of the ATSC, and has been a technical communicator for more years than she cares to remember. 

Contrary to what you are going to think, I’m not against progress – especially in the evolution of grammar. For example, I was thrilled to hear that ‘data’ could be used for both singular and plural data (Pam Peters, ASTC (NSW) Conference 2005). No more twisting of sentences to avoid using data as a plural.

But there is one change that I simply don’t understand. It’s been embraced by technical communicators with such enthusiasm – but I do wonder whether they have really thought it through. I’m referring to this mania for using ‘sentence case’ for headings. 

Quick refresher: Sentence case is where you only capitalise the first word in the heading and of course any proper nouns, in title case you capitalise the first letter of each significant word.

Has nobody thought about what they are losing? 

Take this presentation for our 2012 conference: Better, Faster, Cheaper! The Power of Controlled Language. 
Without the capitals, Better, faster, cheaper! The power of controlled language, is, I think, totally lacking in impact.

A contents list containing all sentence case headings looks really boring and is not easy to scan. You have to read too many words to find what you’re looking for! Why do we, the reader’s advocate, force that on them? 

Worse still, when you refer, in a sentence, to another topic by its heading, you really can’t tell that you’re referring to a heading because it is just lost in the text. You want it to do that, of course, but you also want to alert the reader that it’s a reference to another place. And it looks very odd if your reference commences with ‘The’ as in "Always remember The golden rule: run backups first."

How do you let your readers know that you’re referring to another topic? Well, you can use quotes around the title, which interfere with reading flow, you’ve got bold, but lots of bold makes text look really bitty. Underlines are not to be used as they are usually reserved for a link on a screen, so there’s only italics left. That is the option I have chosen when I have a sentence case heading to refer to. Using italics is then a problem when I also want to use them for some other legitimate purpose, such as the name of an object on a dialog box.
Before you say “the heading should be shorter”, I did try that. In the particular business I’m in, that just won’t work at all. 

Short, sentence case headings do work for David Whitbread’s wonderful The Design Manual. His contents items are rarely more than a single word. However, another great book, Presenting to Win by Jerry Weissman has these headings which I simply can’t see shortened or in sentence case:

• Seven Classic Opening Gambits  • Compound Opening Gambits • Linking to Point B • Tell ‘em What You’re Gonna Tell ‘em • 90 Seconds to Launch • Winning Over the Toughest Crowd 

Somehow their magic is lost with:
• Seven classic opening gambits • Compound opening gambits • Linking to point b • Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em • 90 seconds to launch • Winning over the toughest crowd 


So with all this enthusiasm for sentence case for headings, what has been achieved? The only explanation I’ve been able to find is that it looks better.  Do we want a document to look better or be easier for our readers to use?

In case you’re wondering, I am well aware of word patterns and of studies that conclude that lower case words are easier to read than upper case. In a lot of these surveys, sentences all in upper case are compared with lower case sentences. Of course lower case words are easier to read but mixed case, used wisely, is not harder to read than all lower case. Try it, you might be surprised at how successful it is.

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