e e cummings Goes to Court:

Craigslist’s Motion to Dismiss in Gibson v. Craigslist, Inc. struck me as quite good. But I noticed a particular usage choice that I thought might have been unwise, and I wanted to think what others thought of it.

Craigslist appears to consistently identify itself as craiglist, uncapitalized, and the motion does the same, with paragraphs such as:

craigslist has great sympathy for the situation and injuries of the plaintiff alleged by the Complaint. craigslist condemns gun violence and the illegal purchase and sale of firearms. Users who post advertisements on the craigslist website are required to accept terms of use that expressly prohibit advertisements for the sale of illegal goods and for the sale of weapons, including firearms.

But that strikes me as quite jarring to the reader. Having a business name be uncapitalized in the middle of the sentence (“on the craigslist website”) is odd enough, but having the first word of a sentence uncapitalized (“craigslist has great sympathy,” “craigslist condemns”) is even more unusual and therefore likely to be distracting and annoying.

Of course, I’m sure a judge or a law clerk won’t deliberately rule against Craigslist for unusual capitalization. But my sense is that this sort of departure from otherwise rigid linguistic norms is likely to put some readers in a slightly worse mood, and make them slightly less receptive to the substantive argument (if only because they’re distracted from it by the capitalization choice).

Nor can one say that somehow this capitalization choice is required in English to accurately reproduce the company’s name (which is why, for instance, we’d use 3M to refer to 3M even though names that start with numbers are highly unusual in English). Even if that might justify leaving “craigslist” uncapitalized in the middle of a sentence (which I doubt), it provides no explanation for having “craigslist” be uncapitalized as the first word of a sentence. After all, normal English words that are generally uncapitalized are capitalized at the start of a sentence; why should “craigslist” be any different?

My sense is that when in court, you should do as the judges do. Law is generally a methodologically and procedurally conservative field, and judges are more likely to be annoyed than pleased by flashes of nonconformity, whether they consist of the lawyer’s personal grooming choices (say, mohawks) or of the company’s choice to depart from English usage conventions, especially ones as consistent as capitalization at the start of sentences. And would craigslist, or craig, or any of the rest of the craigslist crew, really be so offended if the lawyer wrote Craigslist instead?

But perhaps I’m wrong, and perhaps no judge or clerk would be even slightly and subconsciously soured on the motion by this sort of usage choice. So I’d like to know what you folks think about it.

UPDATE: Some commenters suggested that having a lower-case “craigslist” follows the standard usage for proper names, which supposedly never change their capitalization, even when they start a sentence.

But I’m skeptical that this is a standard exception to the “always capitalize the first word of a sentence” rule. There are, of course, relatively few names as to which such a standard exception could even develop, since most proper names begin with a capital letter. Yet, unless I’m mistaken, the great majority of such names are names in which there’s a lower-case particle that begins what is generally seen in English as the last name: Hernando de Soto, Jacobus tenBroek, Luiz In

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