The AP Stylebook recently made headlines, and raised some eyebrows, by deeming that we shouldn’t capitalize the words “Internet” and “Web” anymore when used in an online context.
In an email to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, AP Standards Editor Thomas Kent said, “The changes reflect a growing trend toward lowercasing both words, which have become generic terms.”
This follows previous AP Stylebook recommendations. In 2011 “e-mail” became “email” and in 2010 “Web site” became “website.”
The AP Stylebook is the most frequently used arbiter of style and usage among print and online newspapers in the U.S. Books and magazines often follow the Chicago Manual of Style, while academic publishers often look to the MLA Style Manual, a guide from the Modern Language Association of America.
Individuals as well as organizations are free to adopt whatever usage conventions they feel are most appropriate for them and their readers. The Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Handbook, The New York Times, and Time magazine capitalize “Internet.” Wired News and many overseas publications, including the Economist, the BBC, and the Sydney Morning Herald, use lowercase.
In English, capitalization is used for proper nouns, which have a unique identity, referring to “a particular being or thing,” according to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.
Therein lies the controversy. What other Internet is there besides the Internet? The word internet lowercased has traditionally been used to mean an interconnected business, academic, or government network, or internetwork.
As you might expect, many commentators have weighed in on this issue, over the Internet. The funniest comments I’ve read suggest that the Internet should start referring to the source of the current controversy as the “ap stylebook.”
But using lowercase, or “downstyle,” has a history on the Internet. It’s easier for some people when typing to avoid having to press the shift key to capitalize. Some take this so far as to never capitalize, even at the beginning of sentences.
But this can make comprehension more difficult. Ease of writing shouldn’t lead to difficulty of reading. In the same way, if you want to be best understood with tweets, texts, emails, posts, blogs, and other online communication, you should think twice about ignoring punctuation and spelling.
The computer world has long been whacky about capitalization. Some computer companies, such as Yahoo, spell their names with all caps and many use a cap within a name, with Apple being famous for this with its iMac, iPhone, iPad, iPod, iOS, and iCloud. But Microsoft does this with PowerPoint, OneNote, and SharePoint; eBay, YouTube, and others do this with their names.
With online communications, typing in all caps is considered the equivalent of shouting. Also, as with all lowercase, typing in all uppercase makes what you write more difficult to read.
Even if you want to type the correct uppercase or lowercase, sometimes computer technology gets in the way in trying to help. Apple’s Siri voice recognition system often infuriatingly capitalizes words within sentences that shouldn’t be and fails to capitalize words that should be.
In the U.S., some names that were once proper nouns and trademarks of companies have fallen into the public domain through popular use. They’re now considered common nouns and thus are no longer capitalized, such as aspirin, escalator, and thermos.
Other languages vary in their use of capitals. In German, all nouns, proper and common, are capitalized. English used to do this. In Romance and some other languages, the days of the week, the months, and adjectives of nationality and religion are lowercased.
During ancient times, classical Latin, which the Romance languages of Italian, Spanish, and French are directly descended from, consisted of only the equivalent of capital letters. There was no lowercase.
To me, proper nouns are unique, individual members of a set. The earth, the sun, and the moon are all proper nouns and should be capitalized. It’s considered correct today to lowercase the second word in many scientific terms such as Homo sapiens that to me feel like proper nouns.
If you want to get totally lost in all this, or maybe not, take a look at the 1980 book Naming and Necessity by the American philosopher Saul Kripke. The book is about proper nouns and the philosophy of language, and it’s well regarded by analytic philosophers. But it’s full of (lowercased) usages—such as rigid designator, a priori necessary identity, a posteriori contingently true.
Even when the correct letter case is used, whether upper or lower, understanding can sometimes be difficult.