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The End of the Internet as We Knew It

Posted on Friday, December 29, 2017 at 9:49 PM

No, we're not talking about the death of net neutrality. This is about lowercasing the word "internet" and its implications for future style adjustments.

By William Dunkerley

Last year the Associated Press Stylebook demoted the Internet to the internet. No more capital "I." This year the Chicago Manual of Style followed suit.

Webster's, on the other hand, says, "In US publications, the capitalized form Internet continues to be more common than internet, although the lowercase form is rapidly gaining more widespread use. In British publications, internet is now the more common form."

My first reaction to this capitalization issue was to side with Webster's. After all, I figured, it's the name of a specific global network. Did AP goof up on this out of misunderstanding that? It brought to mind the word "irregardless." Through misunderstanding, people have conflated the words "regardless" and "irrespective" to come up with the mishmash "irregardless." Why, that word is even self-contradictory if you parse it.

But Editors Only has strived to be at the forefront of style when it comes to the evolving use of technical terms. We changed "Web site" to "website" back in 1998. AP didn't make the jump until 2010. We were also quick to get rid of "E-mail" in favor of "email." So my wariness toward lowercasing "internet" was out of step. I sought advice from our editorial team about the inevitable change to lowercase.

Sage Advice

Columnist Peter Jacobi put it this way:

"My feeling is that internet has become, if it wasn't always, a generic. It's not a brand like Kleenex or MSNBC or Cheerios. It's like facial tissues or cable network or cereal.

"Verdi's La Traviata is a title and requires capital letters. Opera, a form of communication of which 'Traviata' is an example, does not; opera (lowercase) will do. The New York Times is a brand and requires capitals; that the Times is a newspaper does not. Like opera and newspaper, in my view, so film and radio and cable and wireless and magazine and telephone and cell and telegram and television and fax and computer and mail and slow mail and email and public address and website and, yes, internet, which is just another technique or way or device that allows for communication. It is a generic label, no capital letter required. I believe lowercase makes more sense."

Managing editor Denise Gable had this to say:

"I see both sides of the argument. However, if I'm forced to take a stand, I say if you accept that the English language is in a constant state of evolution, then the latest decision by the AP style guide to make internet lowercase makes sense. The telephone, phonograph, and television were all capitalized at one point, but as they became more common, they were treated as non-proper nouns and no longer capitalized. More recently, the same happened with fax, website, and email. The internet has definitely reached this point and should be treated as such."

Eileen Ferris, who works on the business strategy side of things here but also teaches English at the college level, remarked:

"I was initially ready to say I wanted to stick with 'Internet.' The argument that we've gone from 'Web site' to 'website' was not convincing. Then I gave it some more thought. We don't use 'Smartphone.' Instead, we use 'smartphone' as the generic for the brand name 'Apple iPhone' that was the first Internet (or internet) phone and for similar devices. As more of our basic devices go electronic, it seems that more of the terminology goes lowercase. Blame it on email or the Apple iPhone. Before 'email' was 'email' it was 'e-mail,' but the 'Apple iPhone' used the lowercase 'i' from the beginning."

Senior editor Meredith Dias was first to question how we should treat "internet." She also works as a senior production editor for a book publisher (Globe Pequot) that follows Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster. Here's her comment:

"When AP made the change, I thought about whether or not we should implement it in Editors Only and STRAT. We follow some AP conventions and retain others from style guides such as Chicago (e.g., the Oxford comma, title caps in article titles and subheads, etc.). When Chicago joined the revolution, the case was closed in my eyes. I think it's only a matter of time before Merriam-Webster follows suit; they've already conceded somewhat by listing 'internet' as an accepted variant."

There is a close counterpart to the vast computer network that we call the internet. It is the long-existing network for telephone communication. That system is commonly abbreviated in all caps: PSTN. But when it's written out, the caps are dropped and what's left is the "public switched telephone network."

So "internet" it is. I think following usage makes more sense than being stubbornly prescriptive.

Holdouts

There will always be those with a prescriptive bent, though.

For instance, the Federal Highway Administration insists that the "Interstate Highway System" should always be rendered with initial caps.

Well, so much for washington.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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