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In English speech, it's perfectly normal to refer to the capitalization of a term to clarify if it's a proper noun or not—"The party's new approach is small-c conservative", because the listener can't hear capitalisation. But should one do this in writing, since the reader can already see the capitalisation? Is it redundant to write "small-c conservative" or "capital-t Truth", or just acceptable as part of pleonasm?

I have noticed that many respectable publications write out the redundant phrase, but the mere fact that this is often written out doesn't necessarily make it good writing....

For example, from a recent article in The Guardian (emphasis added):

Not that long ago, people who lived in such places were largely assumed to be small-c conservative, and fond of the kind of lifestyle choices that went with that kind of outlook: golf, washing one’s car on a Sunday morning, keeping up with the proverbial Joneses.

Or from a review article in the New Republic:

If this penchant for fabulism is so deeply baked into Dylan’s DNA, then why should anyone reasonably expect that his private manuscripts or personal letters would adhere any more to the capital-t Truth?

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It's all about the statement, not letters:

When I met my wife, I described some of my friends as capital-C Catholics. My wife is a Catholic, but took it in good humor as I turned red.

The correct capitalization isn't what this is about. That's a matter for English class. This is about a different meaning entirely. Saying someone is a little-c conservative means they are not far-right conservative, or perhaps implies they are conservative in one area, but not in others. A big-C conservative is someone who conforms closely with all conservative values and is a bit fanatical/preachy about it.

Using this big-letter/small-letter emphasis is really about defining the direction of emphasis you want to place on a word. So a big-T truth is one that is all encompassing and strict, conceding the truth to their opponents even when it loses you an advantage. A little-t truth is implying someone says they follow the truth, but don't really take it that seriously. Little-t truth shouldn't get in the way of a really good argument.

So using this in writing isn't wrong, because it's not about the letter being capitalized or not. It's about the writer communicating a nuance of meaning to a word.

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  • In some countries, there is a party called the Conservative Party. Small c conservatives would have a conservative outlook but wouldn't necessarily be members of the Conservative Party.
    – Ryan_L
    Jun 24 at 16:47
  • @Ryan_L I didn't know the foreign context, but that totally fits with the theme of the answer. Thx!
    – DWKraus
    Jun 24 at 20:10

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