Posted by: Jack Henry | June 1, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Why the capital I?

Dear Editrix,

Why do we capitalize the letter “I”? Is this something they do in other languages? Or do we English speakers just have big egos when we are writing about ourselves?


Visualizing in Ventura, Always

Dear VIVA,

What an interesting question! It never seemed odd to me that we would capitalize the pronoun “I,” yet it doesn’t follow any rules of capitalization. I found an article on about this topic that I’d like to share with you. Be careful, though. If you follow the link you may lose yourself in other fascinating articles such as “Why do we capitalize letters at all?” (Though if you are into calligraphy you definitely want to check it out because it talks about the uncial alphabet.)

Here is your answer for “I.”

Why do we capitalize the first-person pronoun, I? The short answer is because we do. But that’s not a very satisfactory answer. Even though it feels natural to English speakers, capitalizing I is unusual. In fact, English is the only language that does. Germanic and Romantic languages typically have some conventions for capitalizing proper nouns, like Deutschland (in German) or Place de la Concorde (in French), but English is the only one that selfishly insists on capitalizing the personal pronoun. We do not, you will recall, even capitalize we.

(Wondering why we capitalize letters at all? Learn the full story here.)

It turns out that this unusual convention was a bit of an accident. In Old and Middle English, the word for “I” was closer to its German cousin, “ich,” and it was often spelled “ic.” At this point, the word was not capitalized. However, the pronunciation changed over time and so did the spelling, losing the consonant c.

At first, the new word, i, was left lowercase. However, it began to grow taller than other words. It grew for a silly reason: a single letter looks bad. Look at it: i. How sad. By the time Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s, I, the personal pronoun, was slightly taller than its lowercase equivalent. From that point on, it was typically capitalized.

The only other accepted single-letter word in English, a, is a larger presence on the page. Its appearance isn’t as offensive as the thin i.

From the Book of Kells. Written in an Irish uncial script.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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