Using all Capital Letters

An instructor asked me the other day, “How does a screen reader read text in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS?”

I didn’t know, and through it was a great question, and had to figure it out. Let’s start with some sample text:

It’s VERY important you remember these:

  • USPS
  • NASA
  • DVD

There’s four words in all caps there. Let’s look at each one, from the bottom to the top:

DVD is an initialism, meaning you read each letter in it, like CPU or FBI. NASA is an acronym, meaning you read it as a word, even though each letter stands for a word. USPS is another initialism. But VERY is just a word, with all capital letters being used for emphasis.

Of course, it’s wrong to use capital letters in this way – you should instead be using an em or strong tag (though which one is complex, and I didn’t find the examples in the specification very helpful). But the instructor’s question wasn’t about what should happen, it was about what does happen. How can a screen reader know which of those words it should treat as words or acronyms (which are like words, in terms of pronunciation), and which it should treat as initialism (and read letters instead of the word)?

I ran each of the examples through the say program on my Mac, and here’s what I got (sentence case was pronounced like lowercase):

Word Uppercase Lowercase
Very word word
USPS letters word
NASA word word
DVD letters letters

There’s some interesting logic there. I think this table shows my Mac will always read dictionary words as words (like “very”). And I think it shows that my Mac also has a list of known acronyms and initialisms, so it knows how to read those. For words that aren’t in either list, but also aren’t in the dictionary (like USPS), it reads all capital letters as initialisms, but lowercase as a word (a reasonable assumption, since most of the time it encounters words that aren’t in the dictionary, it’s probably due to the lang attribute not being set correctly.

Of course, this is just say on my Mac, which isn’t even a screen reader. WebAIM has some general rules for how screen readers read things, but it isn’t really predictable how a screen reader is going to pronounce words in all capitals. Pronouncing typographic symbols is hit or miss as well — some, like @ and % are read correctly. But most others (like the parenthesis, or the mdash in the previous sentence) aren’t read universally. Rare punctuation, like the interrobang (‽) may not be read at all.

I was hoping that abbr would influence how screen readers pronounce words, but that doesn’t appear to be the case (and, if you’ve been around HTML for a while, remember you’re not supposed to use acronym at all — though it probably wouldn’t do anything here anyway).

What does this mean for you at Lane?

Use the abbr tag to specify acronyms and initialisms if possible. Even though screen readers won’t necessarily change how they handle pronunciation, abbr with a title attribute makes it easier for anyone to understand meaning. Try hovering over this: NASA.

If you want to use capital letters for emphasis: don’t. Instead, use either an em or a strong tag, depending on if you’re trying to emphasize something or make it note that it’s more important than surrounding text. And, of course, never use strong in place of a header.

If you want to use capital letter for aesthetic reasons, then you should use a bit of CSS to make it happen:

.all-caps {
  text-transform: uppercase;

Screen readers ignore CSS, so this use is entirely for presentation. Just make sure you don’t confuse presentation with meaning.

I ran a quick search on our website for pages that have a lot of capital letters all in a row:

SELECT entity_id
FROM   field_data_body
WHERE  body_value REGEXP BINARY '[A-Z ]{10}';

There were 748 results. Editing 748 pages obviously won’t happen overnight, and on each one we’ll need to determine if we should instead be using a header, a strong, an em, or just normal text. For now, I’ve queued a task for us to tackle in the future, but if you’re editing your page and notice some misuse of capital letters, we’d be forever appreciative if you’d fix it.

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