June 17, 2013
The Navy goes all e.e. cummings on us
by Sal Robinson
A significant shift in naval communications protocol happened this April: the U.S. Navy, which since the nineteenth century has issued all of its official communications in all capital letters, authorized the use of “mixed-case” letters, meaning the humble lowercase. No longer will even routine messages look like drop-everything URGENT SITUATIONS. Though, so that no one thought they were getting soft or anything, the directive authorizing the use of lowercase letters was itself in all capital letters.
The Navy’s use of all-caps is tied to the teletype machine, which in its earlier incarnations had a three-line keyboard with a limited number of characters. However, legacy systems have continued to support the all-caps style, and it’s only because the Navy is moving to a new messaging system this year that they’re finally able to finally loosen their neckties, muddy their whites, and toss those little caps off into the winds of change.
While messages written in all capital letters are pretty much universally understood these days to be harder to read and also to indicate a hectoring, unbalanced tone (they could even cost you your job), the U.S. Military has held out in the fight against the encroaching lowercasing of American society. The Navy was the first branch to crack. But commentary from other military branches on the Navy’s decision suggests that they may not be far behind. In “Battle Rattle,” a Marine blog in the Military Times, Major Shawn Haney, a spokeswoman with Manpower and Reserve Affairs in the Marines, conveyed a certain mixture of frustration and optimism about the decision, saying,
While I don’t know if there’s been any movement to follow suit, I certainly hope this opens up the possibility. Our current message format, with all caps and a lack of spacing, is the worst form of document design in terms of readability, comprehension and usability. Changes resulting in an easy to read and useful digital document are desperately needed.
In Navy circles, the change seems to have been accepted with some good-humored joshing. An article by Julian Barnes on the topic in the Wall Street Journal quoted Kevin Traver, vice president of the Navy League of the United States (a Navy lobbying group), who wrote that he thought it was a “CAPITAL” idea. And retired Rear Admiral John Hutson said that “My initial reaction was OMG, what are we doing?”
But it’s not all fun and games and liberty and freedom and no punctuation and calligram poems and sending lowercased love notes across the telegraph wires late into the night over at Navy HQ. When asked if naval personnel could put emoticons in official communications, James McCarty, the messaging program manager at Fleet Cyber Command, responded,
Someone could put a smiley face or a heart in there. It may very well happen. But it would be the last thing that person ever does.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.