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Do you put an initial capital letter on Internet, or the related words Net and Web? This may seem a fussy, not to say pedantic, question. But it’s one that copy editors and those charged with creating the house styles for publishing firms must wrestle with in order to create text that looks consistent, avoids annoying or confusing readers, and quietly states that it forms part of a unified publication, whoever wrote the words.

This came into the news this week because Wired magazine, the house magazine of Net geeks, publicised a change of policy. From now on, it says, all three words will be written in lower case. “Why?”, writes Tony Long, the copy chief. “The simple answer is because there is no earthly reason to capitalize any of these words. Actually, there never was.”

Hm. There are arguments for following the magazine’s lead, as we shall see, but Tony Long’s comment ignores the historical evidence. The Internet was originally, in the late 1960s, a US Department of Defense project called ARPAnet (after the Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency). It was designed to permit its academic researchers to talk to each other more effectively by linking their individual computer networks. So it was an inter-network, or internet. The latter word, in lower-case, seems to have been first used in 1974, in a standards document written by Vint Cerf; references to it in memoranda and technical specifications in the following years were also usually lower case. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry with an initial capital letter is from the magazine Network World in 1986, though by then it had become common in standards documents, too. Virtually all publications adopted this style into and through the 1990s.

The reasoning behind capitalising it was that there was just one entity that was called by this title, that it was a specific thing with a proper name, and that by the usual rules that name ought to be capitalised. It also distinguished this official network from a number of others that appeared from the early 1980s onwards, such as BITNET. In the USA, an initial capital is still the norm and is recommended in style guides. But we’ve begun to see a shift away from the use of an initial capital letter in all three words, especially in the UK, where the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, the Guardian, and the New Scientist have all lower-cased Internet for several years.

The reason is hinted at in Tony Long’s piece: in public perception the Internet has changed from an entity to a process. It’s becoming regarded as a communications medium and most people don’t think of themselves as Internet users. Instead, their mental focus is on what they’re doing — they’re getting information, sending e-mails to their friends, or downloading music — in just the same way that they think of the telephone. You don’t call it “The Telephone”, you regard it as a generalised mechanism with which to get in touch with a friend or order a pizza. And just as we don’t capitalise the words for media such as television, radio, mail, telephone, or newspaper, why should we capitalise Internet? The change, though minor in itself, is a cultural marker for a shift in public perception and a further sign that the Internet is becoming a mature medium. I’ve no doubt myself that the lower-case forms will eventually prevail.

So what do I do now? My personal house style says the words should have initial caps. As with everybody else in the business of words, the decision by Wired magazine is another indication that sometime soon I may have to rethink.

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Page created 28 Aug 2004