Idea for word processors: automatic character style for capitalizing titles

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft, Pages, Technology, Writing
September 2nd, 2005 • 11:36 am

With the current slump in software innovation when it comes to text editors and word processors, you’d think that there’s nothing left to invent to assist editors and writers in their work.

I believe that this is simply not true. Here’s a very simple idea that came to me the other day.

In English, writers frequently have to quote works of art or titles of books, movies, songs, records, etc. For such titles, in English, there are various capitalization rules. These rules also apply to headlines. The Chicago Manual of Style describes this as “headline-style capitalization” (17.50) and indicates that “the first and last words of title and subtitle and all other major words are capitalized.”

Word processors and text editors already have some tools that are designed to help with this. But these tools are very crude and typically only offer the option to capitalize every word in the selection (regardless of whether it is a “major word” or not) permanently.

In other words, not only are these tools unable to follow the rules of headline-style capitalization defined by the Chicago Manual of Style, but they also offer no easy way to revert the process. (All you can do is use an equally crude tool that changes everything to lowercase, including letters that should stay capitalized.)

In this day and age, you would think that word processors could have a smarter tool for this. More specifically, word processors such as Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages already have automatic character formatting that changes every letter in the selection to uppercase in a non-permanent way. You can also incorporate such character formatting in a character style.

Couldn’t we have a “Headline Capitalization” character formatting option that does the same thing, but with headline-style capitalization? Surely it wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with an algorithm that parses the selected text and only capitalizes those words that should be capitalized. And surely this character formatting option could be offered as a non-permanent option that can be as easily removed as it is added, and that can be incorporated into the definition of a character style?

(Word processors could also include another option that capitalizes every word, including “minor” ones, since this seems to be the style used in some contexts, such as pop song titles.)

I don’t see any obstacles preventing software companies from coming up with such a tool and adding it to their software’s feature set. The only reason why such “innovations” don’t happen these days is the total lack of real competition for Microsoft Word, which means that no developer has any incentive to come up with such improvements.

It’s a disappointing situation. We have technology that is so powerful that it could easily provide numerous new tools to assist writers everywhere. Yet writing software has not evolved at all in recent times. Another thing to thank Bill Gates for, I guess.

2 Responses to “Idea for word processors: automatic character style for capitalizing titles”

  1. Evan Gross says:

    Maybe a job for Spell Catcher X? I’d have to read up on the topic.

    You sure that all writing software hasn’t evolved in recent times?

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Of course I didn’t mean Spell Catcher :). I was referring mostly to word processors. Pages is cool (still needs work), but it doesn’t really innovate by introducing new stuff. It just streamlines the existing stuff.

    As I see it, Spell Catcher X can’t really help here, because I am talking about a formatting option, something that could be incorporated into a style definition. Spell Catcher already provides Title Case through its Modify Selection service, but it’s a “permanent” thing (although it can be immediately undone, of course). I am talking about a formatting option on top of typed text, an added layer (like the Uppercase formatting option in Word/Pages). SCX can’t do that.

    You could probably improve the Modify Selection command by providing a Headline-style Capitalization command, and also providing a smart Decapitalization command that doesn’t change the “I” pronouns to “i” — but that’s about all you can do.

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