Let’s call a Place a place – how the sector got its caps lock stuck

Why do people in universities capitalise things that they shouldn't? And why should anyone care either way?

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

The other night, John Raftery, vice chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, asked a very good question on LinkedIn that caught my eye as I was casually scrolling through some really inspirational insights from thought leaders of the sort you find on that site.

“At present, in 2023, when universities in England mention the place where they are physically located, they often use an upper case, as in ‘Place.’ Why?”

Fit and proper

We have a very simple house style rule on Wonkhe. If it’s not a proper noun, then it’s not getting capitalised. It’s also probably the rule we have to apply the most – changing things from upper to lower case dozens of times across a blog before it is ready to publish, every single day.

But why has the sector got its caps lock stuck on in the first place? I have a theory – bear with me.

People often capitalise Things They Think Are Really Important and this problem seems particularly acute in higher education. The University of Flipperton is a proper noun and that’s its title. So do go ahead and apply capitals when referring to it. But “universities” and indeed “higher education” are not proper nouns, and so they should not be capitalised when writing about them generically. Not if you want to escape our red pen anyway.

I have scoured the specialist media for healthcare professionals, and no one, literally no one capitalises the h of hospitals when writing about them generically. And rightly so, because they are not proper nouns. So why do so many people do it when writing about “Universities”?

Caps block

The answer, my friends, lies in the question with which we started our journey together today. It turns out, that the capitalisation of the p in “place” is actually the perfect example of a much wider and deeper capitalisation problem in the sector. It’s the thin edge of a wedge, a cautionary tale. Thank you for coming to my TED talk which will now properly commence.

There is a real issue in writing (not just in HE) that confuses government (and government-adjacent) economic agendas and slogans with Real Things and “place” will often fall into that tendency. See also: levelling up – never to be capitalised but often is. Just because the government puts capitals on everything it thinks is important, and that might even be its house style, it doesn’t mean you have to adopt it in your writing, and I’m sorry to say that doing so just makes everything read like a government press release. In other words, it’s off-putting, alien language for most people.

On a side note, have a look at the state of the leaked WhatsApp discussion amongst Tory MPs plotting to oust Boris Johnson last year. They contained some truly wild use of capital letters e.g. “everyone needs to calm down and get back to work so that we can focus on delivering for The People’s Priorities”. For me, these were much more revealing about how politicians think and write than they were about the political machinations going on at the time. And as part of the historical record now, they serve as a sort of crappily screenshotted warning from history. Bad capitalisation is coming for us all.

The place-based meat of my point

Like the question of importance and priority, I worry that “place” is becoming a posh way of saying local, without having to sound downmarket. Adding the capital P is just the cherry on top, signalling a sort of legitimacy or even the sheen of prestige that you don’t get from talking about your local work e.g. “we are launching our new Place-based strategy” – is the sort of thing we see all the time at Wonkhe and change for publication where we can.

Someone said to me recently the rebranding of “local” to “place” reminded them of how vegan was recently re-branded to “plant-based” in order to sell more vegan food to men. It’s all very clever marketing and psychology of course, but the use of these methods in politics and policy isn’t just a neat trick to sell more corn-based cheddar, it comes off as really Orwellian. Politicians are guilty of this all the time – see above.

Finally, there’s the whole history of management speak that should worry us. A university writing about its “place” (caps or, indeed, no caps) is communicating in the language of the boardroom, not with how actual living human beings speak or think.

For all politicians’ own sins in language manipulation (and there are too many to mention), there’s a reason you won’t hear MPs talking to people on the doorstep about their “place-based initiatives” – at least not if they seriously want to win any votes.

You see, the problem with the use of caps in higher education might seem trivial at a glance but it has allowed me to arrive at a serious point for you to take away from this talk. Which is this: only universities could take something otherwise ordinary and relatable to every single person and somehow make it feel remote and detached – by using an alien term and then inflating its first letter to underscore its towering, looming importance. It’s quite an achievement, really. And shows, as if we ever needed the reminder, why language and grammar matter.

6 responses to “Let’s call a Place a place – how the sector got its caps lock stuck

  1. So, I can go with that, but with this caveat. I like to think that when I refer to something that my provider has done, I refer to it as The University, which is a shortened form of The University of Flipperton, and so I retain the capitalisation. When I refer to lots of providers, they can be universities without the caps.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with this. I add lowercase bachelor of arts, Dearing committee, national student survey, and internet.

    I am ambivalent about the national committee of inquiry into higher education.

    But I capitalise Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and the Office for Students since it is a body corporate established by legislation.

  3. These things matter, lest the image of the teacher whacking me with a steel ruler across the knuckles for grammatical errors in secondary school returns to haunt me. Simplicity and clarity for all, at all times, I say. Vice-chancellors/presidents/chief executives, take note.

  4. As with many aspects of language, one answer is that you are all correct, because there are no rules, just conventions, and conventions can include adopting whatever “house style” is required of you. I have just spent a happy half hour in the 17th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, always a favourite read, which devotes four columns of its dense index to issues of capitalisation. I particularly note section 7.52 on “capitalisation for emphasis” which notes it as an historic practice which is now used mostly ironically, but also 8.94 on the capitalisation of “Platonic ideas” (is “place” a Platonic idea when used figuratively? Discuss …)

    My basic rule of thumb is do as instructed by the editor (particularly if that is Mark). When I write reports for quality agencies then capitalisation is only allowed for single defined entities (so definitely, the University – when referring to the one being reviewed – but universities, when dealing with the sector in general, Also, faculties/schools, when talking about general structures, but the Faculty if you have just been talking about work in a particular area of the University but don’t want to write the name out in full again).

    My only, personal, change in approach has been, over recent years, to let this slip a little internally, lest colleagues feel I am demeaning them in any way, so I always tend to capitalise role titles, for example – which I would not do in a review report,

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