A Question About Upper-Case and Lower-Case

Words at the beginning of a sentence are supposed to be capitalized. However, there are many abbreviations that start with a lower-case letter. For example, messenger RNA is designated as mRNA with the m always being lower-case.

If the mRNA is at the beginning of a sentence, should the m be capitalized? If I write it with the m as lower-case, it looks funny because of the small m at the beginning. It looks even funnier if I capitalize it because the abbreviation is supposed to be a small m.

Which one should I go with?

My intuitive response is that the lower case initial should be written in full, in this case, “Messenger RNA…” Similar to the convention that dictates that in text the numbers 0-9 should be written as words, and ten and above should be depicted by numerals. However the sentence “45 years ago…”, would always be written “Forty five years ago…”

Thank you. This is for a biology paper that’s due tomorrow so I’m going crazy trying to get it all polished up. One of these days I’m going to have to stop procrastinating!

The Wiki article seems to suggest that you use “mRNA” even at the beginning of a sentence.

See also here: http://www.biochem.uwo.ca/meds/MEDNA/mRNA.html

Thank you Dervorin. Since I can’t recall anytime in class that the professor has actually used the term messenger when talking about mRNA, I’m going to go with that. Thanks for your help.

Advice from my SO, who’s doing a PhD in genetics:

That might be your best bet, although it looks as if “mRNA” is acceptable.

Good advice for the next paper, but seeing as this one is due in a little over 3 hours, I simply don’t have the time to go through the entire thing and rearrange sentences. Since both of your links have mRNA at the beginning of sentences, I’m assuming that that is acceptable. I do appreciate the responses though.

Technically, you’re discouraged from starting your sentences with numerals (which don’t of course have “case”) either, for that reason.

There’s a similar debate when writing the documentation for the source code of computer programs, because most of the variables in computer programs are in lower case. Some people say this is not a problem. Some say you should capitalize the first letter of the variable if it starts a sentence (this is very noticeable in BSD). Some say you should just rephrase your sentence so that you don’t start it with a variable.

It’s a data point but Wikipedia is not a worldwide authority on style. There is no style guide AFAIK and anybody can edit it with minimal oversight. I could go in there now and change the m to an M if that’s what I like better.

BTW this is a matter of style. You can do whatever you want as long as you’re consistent.

Thanks for the responses everyone. When I turned in the paper this morning I asked my professor about it. He said that mRNA at the beginning of a sentence is acceptable to him. When I asked a professor from the English department about it later this morning, she said that I should try to rearrange the sentence so that the lower-case m is not first. So I guess the answer depends on who’s reading it.:dubious:

And what about “iPod”?

Why the eyebrow? That’s exactly the way language works, especially style points like this one.

My personal preference is to capitalize these kinds of words when they start a sentence – IPod, EBay, etc. – just like any other word that starts with a lower-case letter.

Yes, precisely. As has been said, this is a matter of style, and there is no correct. What is acceptable for a paper in a science class may not be proper in a popular magazine article. Actually, I would try to avoid this kind of problem by rewriting the sentence even if it was going into a scientific journal. Standards are looser for things like class papers.

I’m a professor in an English department, BTW. I guess that’s the humanities approach.

That’s why I said “seems to suggest” rather than it being the final word. As you noted, there is no final word, and the best approach might be to find out the style guidelines of the journal you want to publish in, or the professor you are aiming to please.

Even this is overstating the value of one Wikipedia article to the question. Wikipedia is not a stylebook and it follows no particular stylebook and it is not written by a body of known writers who collectively adhere to any stylebook.

The problem crops up on this message board, too. Some members use lower-case names. Sometimes, I capitalize their names at the start of a sentence, and I hope they don’t mind.

What do you mean numerals don’t have upper case? See, this is the lower case 1, and this is the upper case !. Same for the other numbers:

2 @
3 #
4 $
5 %
6 ^
7 &
8 *
9 (
0 )

I don’t know what’s the big deal.
Now seriously, we had a similar situation not long ago about members whose username begins with a lower case letter (such as ascenray, pseudotriton and panache on this thread). Apparently some want their names always in lower case, even at the beginning of a sentence.

ETA: sigh how did I miss the post above mine?

You’re joking about the figures, but there are upper and lower-case figures. Most typefaces have just the uppercase ones, which are the same height as capital letters. However, some typefaces come with “old style” figures, which start at x-height and have ascenders (6, 8) and descenders (3, 4, 5, 7, 9). In “French-style” figures, the 3 is ascending instead of descending.