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Out-of-Style Style

Posted on Monday, June 28, 2010 at 1:58 PM

Style conventions that lag popular usage can give your publication an outdated feel.

By William Dunkerley

Is it "Web site" or "website?" We decided to survey readers. During the period from late March to late May, we heard from 383 editors. Here's the usage they reported:

--Web site: 157
--website: 212
--web site: 9
--Website: 5

You might think that this settles the debate. In the case of "Web site" v. "website" it would appear that website has simply won. Well, it did win, but it isn't that simple.

At the start of our survey, "Web site" was actually in the lead. Take a look at these results from before mid-April:

--Web site: 83
--website: 60
--web site: 3
--Website: 3

Then, for the latter period of our survey, the results were:

--Web site: 74
--website: 152
--web site: 6
--Website: 2

What happened here? Why did "website" pull into the lead, and "Web site" fall into disfavor?

Associated Press Steps In

The turnabout coincided with an announcement from the Associated Press on April 16, 2010. Its online stylebook had abandoned "Web site" in favor of "website." Clearly, the AP decision carried a lot of weight. What's puzzling, however, is what took them so long!

Actually, the style conventions adopted by any publication should take into account the vernacular of its audience. For a group of readers unfamiliar with the Internet, the old "Web site" rendition may indeed be helpful. For a more Web-savvy crowd, it might sound anachronistic. It is important to take these factors into consideration when establishing and updating style guides, so that house style never becomes outdated.

Here's a historical example for comparison. On July 21, 1933, The Pittsburgh Press published a piece by a science writer about a mythical race between a "space ship" (two words) and a comet. But, by April 12, 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin actually traveled into space, The Huntsville Times reported that he did it in a "spaceship" (one word). More recently, there's been the transition from day care to daycare, and health care to healthcare.

One Publication's Rationale

At Editors Only, we adopted "website" back in 1998. We did so because we saw that when editors spoke of a website, it was actually being spoken as one word. "Web" was not modifying the word "site." A Web site and a grave site were not really just two different kinds of sites. Editors knew what a website was, and they had a name for it -- even if the style of all their publications didn't treat it as one word. We also decided to continue to capitalize Web when referring to the Internet. We did that for two reasons. First was to distinguish it from the "web" of web offset printing, and second was because the word is part of the proper noun World Wide Web. It's sort of like calling the United States "the States."

AP isn't the only organization that has been clinging to "Web site." Webster appears to still use it. But, writing in Editors Only for September 1989, Merriam-Webster editor-in-chief Frederick Mish explained, "Most modern lexicographers see the dictionary as, above all, a record of the vocabulary of our language, and especially the vocabulary current [emphasis supplied] when the dictionary is published."

It would seem good to apply that principle to style issues, as well!

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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"I've been using 'website' for years whenever I was in a position to set style for a publication. It just made sense, for the reasons William Dunkerley provided in his article; it's a generic. I was delighted when AP made the switch." --Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, WriterRuth.com. 06-30-2010.

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