It clearly signals the start of a sentence, it gives names status, it makes the first person singular pronoun the centre of its particular universe. It even helps us shout in print.
However, this year I have begun to doubt my faith. Many of my pupils have simply stopped using capital letters. Most of you will know why: it's the curse of the text message.
Some of my more helpful pupils offer to "put them in later", but usually forget to do so. I have recently marked a set of essays on "romeo and juliet", two-thirds of which have failed to capitalise the characters'
names throughout. The boy who told me "I don't do capitals" was telling the truth. Suddenly, it's not enough to insist that I am right and they are wrong. After all, I have long since given up on the split infinitive. I have to think about this more seriously.
What strikes me now is that, for the first time, many of my pupils have a preferred means of written communication. Previously, writing has been something we asked them to do: we set out the rules and regulations and they followed our guidelines to the best of their ability. Outside the classroom, they talked, shouted and telephoned; used slang, dialect or standard English in their speech, but they just didn't write for pleasure.
Few kept diaries or wrote letters, but that didn't bother us as long as they wrote "our way" in the classroom.
Now, however, they are writing for fun. We may not think much of the subject matter, we may worry about text-bullying, we may be horrified by stories of dumping (or even firing) by text message, but maybe we are missing the point. Our children are using writing to communicate. What an extraordinary development!
As teachers, we enjoy non-standard English. We value regional accents, we revel in the richness of the English language through our favourite texts from Shakespeare to John Agard, and our grammar gurus encourage us to be open to variety and to stop fretting about dangling participles. But how do we respond to the fact that our pupils are enthusiastically writing in a style that is limiting and limited?
Examiners are already reporting the increased use of text abbreviations in scripts; I believe that pupils are now doing this subconsciously, not for effect. How will examiners respond to the disappearing capital letter when it, too, becomes an automatic choice?
Ruth Eversley teaches English at Failsworth School in Oldham