lowercase (letters)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

lower case letters
Timothy Samara points out that the lowercase letters (shown above) are "greatly varied in their shapes. The variety of curves, loops, ascenders, and descenders provides a wealth of clues for the eye and brain" (Typography Workbook, 2004). (Claire Cordier/Getty Images)


In the printed alphabet and orthography, the term lowercase (sometimes spelled as two words) refers to small letters (a,b,c . . .) as distinguished from capital letters (A,B,C . . . ). Also known as minuscule (from Latin minusculus, "rather small").

The writing system of English (as in most Western languages) uses a dual alphabet or bicameral script--that is, a combination of lowercase and uppercase letters.

By convention, lowercase is generally used for the letters in all words except for the initial letter in proper nouns and in words that begin sentences. (For exceptions, see "Names With Unusual Capitalization," below.)

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • Origin and Evolution of Lowercase Letters
    - "Originally, lower case letters stood by themselves. Their forms derived from the penned Carolingian minuscule. The upper and lower case letters received their present form in the Renaissance. The serifs of the capitals, or upper case letters, were adapted to those of the lower case alphabet. The capitals are based on an incised or chiseled letter; the lower case characters are based on a pen-written calligraphic form. Now the two kinds of letters appear together."
    (Jan Tschichold, Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering. Norton, 1995)

    - "Upper and lower case? The term comes from the position of the loose metal or wooden letters laid in front of the traditional compositor's hands before they were used to form a word--the commonly used ones on an accessible lower level, the capitals above them, waiting their turn. Even with this distinction, the compositor would still have to 'mind their ps and qs,' so alike were they when each letter was dismantled from a block of type and then tossed back into the compartments of a tray."
    (Simon Garfield, "True to Type: How We Fell in Love With Our Letters." The Observer, October 17, 2010)

  • Names With Unusual Capitalization
    - "Several coinages provide a new look to English spelling, especially with names. We have never seen anything before quite like the use of a lower-case initial for a brand-name, as in iPod, iPhone, iSense and eBay, or airline companies such as easyJet and jetBlue, and it is not yet clear how to handle them, especially when we want one of these words to begin a sentence. There are precedents for introducing a capital in the middle of a word (as in such names as McDonald's and chemical substances such as CaSi, calcium silicate), but brand names have hugely increased its everyday visibility, as seen in AltaVista, AskJeeves, PlayStation, YouTube and MasterCard."
    (David Crystal, Spell It Out. Picador, 2012)

    - "Brand names or names of companies that are spelled with a lowercase initial letter followed by a capital letter (eBay, iPod iPhone, etc.) need not be capitalized at the beginning of a sentence or heading, though some editors may prefer to reword. This departure from Chicago's former usage recognizes not only the preferred usage of the owners of most such names but also the fact that such spellings are already capitalized (if on on the second letter). Company or product names with additional, internal capitals (sometimes called 'midcaps') should likewise be left unchanged."
    (The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.The University of Chicago Press, 2010)  

  • Xerox or xerox?
    - "The dropping of the capital letter of the trademark is one piece of certain evidence that the trademark has indeed become generic. . . .

    "The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] lists 'XEROX' both as capitalized, and in lower case, as well as a trademark and generic term: 'a proprietary name for photocopiers . . . also used loosely to denote any photocopy' (20: 676). This definition points out clearly that 'xerox,' either capitalized or in lower case, is used throughout the population as both a proper adjective and as a noun."
    (Shawn M. Clankie, "Brand Name Use in Creative Writing: Genericide or Language Right?" in Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, ed. Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy. SUNY Press, 1999)

    - "A good rule to follow is that most trademarks are adjectives, not nouns or verbs. Use trademarks as modifiers as in 'Kleenex tissues' or 'Xerox copiers.' Similarly, trademarks are not verbs--you can copy on a Xerox machine, but you cannot 'xerox' anything."
    (Jill B. Treadwell, Public Relations Writing. Sage, 2005)

Pronunciation: lo-er-KAS

Alternate Spellings: lower case, lower-case