I was bemused to see news that Wired News no longer intends to capitalise Internet, Web or Net. According to said news service’s copy chief, “Effective with this sentence, Wired News will no longer capitalize the “I” in internet. At the same time, Web becomes web and Net becomes net. Why? The simple answer is because there is no earthly reason to capitalize any of these words. Actually, there never was.”
This started something of a debate in our offices. There were those on our news desks, who have for many years used lower case for these terms on the basis that they have become as generic as ‘radio’, or ‘television’, and for the added reason that because these terms might come up many times within a single news story, capitalising them makes the story harder to read.
CBR’s main features and analysis style, on the other hand, has always been to use upper case Web, Internet and Net. So why the inconsistency?
I believe that Wired News is wrong to say that there has never been any reason to capitalise these words. The reason to capitalise them is that they are proper nouns, just like Donald Duck. There is a difference between a generic group of interconnected networks (or internets, lower case ‘i’); and the Internet, which is the proper noun for the specific IP-based Internet that we know today. Keeping it upper case demonstrates we know our history – there were internets long before there was the Internet.
Likewise the Web is a proper noun. It is not a web; it is the Web, or the World Wide Web. The Net, too, is not merely an abbreviation for any old network. It is specifically an abbreviation of the Internet, so Net used in that context should be upper case ‘N’ too.
On the other hand, usage of the term Web has changed. While once a web site or web page would refer to pages on the World Wide Web, today you can view pages in a browser that are not necessarily on the Internet (they may be served across an intranet, or cached locally, for example). In this instance you are not talking about the World Wide Web, so it is logical to use lower case for web pages unless you specifically mean pages viewed on the WWW. To make life easier, terms like web page, web site, and web master should all be lower case, and indeed they are according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Aside form these instances, however, Internet, Web and Net are all proper nouns because they refer to a specific iteration of an interconnected network, and in English, proper nouns get an upper case. As a result, in the OED, Web, Internet and Net are all still upper case.
Ah, I hear you say, but even proper nouns can over time morph into generic terms, once they are adopted by the masses and enter common usage. You might point to an example like ‘hoovering’, which is given a lower case these days because you might hoover with a device not made by the company Hoover: you might use a Dyson, if you can afford its Cyclone Technology. So who decides when terms like hoovering have become sufficiently generic to remove the upper case and turn them from, say, a proper noun into a word like hoovering, or hoovers?
Well, it is certainly not up to CBR to make that decision, and not, presumably, Wired News either. I would argue that the experts should take a decision such as this – an organisation like the Oxford University Press and its OED. Said organ conducts regular surveys of word usage and decides when something has become generic.
We do not apply the upper casing of these words in news because it would become harder to read, whereas we do try and enforce it in features, because we believe it shows the differentiation between the Internet as we know it, and a generic network of interconnected computers, which we would call an internet. I know that some editors would argue that inconsistency is the root of all evil, but we are all happy for our news stories to be written in an entirely different style from our feature articles, analysis and opinion pieces. Hell, I wouldn’t personally use language like ‘hell’ in one of my feature articles, but the hell I wouldn’t in an opinion piece.
So, brandishing inconsistency like a shield, I intend to keep Internet and Net upper case, and keep Web upper case too when it refers to the Web (lower case when it refers to anything generic related to web pages or web masters) in feature and analysis articles. In news we use lower case, as we have all along.
I’ll sign off now, because I’m boring myself. Let me know what you think by posting a comment below, if you have an opinion on the subject.