Capitalizing the Internet (or internet): big I or little i?

In case you missed it, the big news in writing style this month was an announcement by the AP style book that…

Wait, wait, wait. Hold on a minute. Let’s rethink that. The whole idea of “big news in writing style” seems wrong. Is there ever any “big news” when it comes to writing style?

Look, I’ve got much more vested in this than most people. I make my living with words, and some of that includes paying meticulous attention to the little quirks of style: the selection and ordering of words for best effect; concern for sentence length and rhythm for readability; the placement of every jot and tittle in an academic reference citation. But let’s be honest: these things are matters of convention, or standard practice, or customer preference (which are all often arbitrary). It’s safe to say that none of this will ever be a matter of life and death. It isn’t even the kind of thing that rates large scale coverage. When it comes to a change in style being “big news,” it’s definitely a matter of perspective. In our culture, though, with news coverage broken down into specialized categories, an item can take on out-sized importance if your mix of news sources overlap. Since I follow a lot of language and grammar news, that happened with AP’s announcement. I must have seen it as the top news item in at least four different places.

To the matter at hand:
On April 2nd, the Associated Press Stylebook (“AP Style”) raised a small flurry in the world of writing style when it announced that they will now spell “Internet” with a lowercase “i” — “internet.” ‘So what,’ you might think. ‘Big deal.’

If that was your reaction, I understand it completely. As a writer and editor — and also as someone with a technical background — I recognize the difference between the use of big I and little i internet. But I also recognize that most people don’t know there’s a difference, and even when they should (or do), most don’t consistently make the distinction in writing. Even in the technical world, where the distinction matters, it’s only important on rare occasions, and less so as everyone and everything in the world moves toward full Internet connectivity, everywhere and all the time.

In the technical world, it is sometimes still important to distinguish between “the internet” — usually the collection of a company’s networks; for example, the one in each building on a site — and “the Internet” — the world-spanning network we’re all familiar with. For many purposes, they’re the same thing or they at least overlap, but in other ways they are very different entities. For one thing, a company will have direct control over its own internet. It can set the rules, block different types of traffic, make different kinds of connections, and otherwise do as it pleases inside its own boundaries. It might even, for example, restrict access to the big I Internet from all or part of its little i internet.

A few of the works on my reference shelf, AP at center.

A few of the works on my reference shelf, AP at center.

Of course, for practical purposes this doesn’t matter to the end user. All they see is one network, and while they might not have access to some resources from behind their corporate firewall, internet and Internet is a difference without a distinction. Or is that a distinction without a difference? Either way: While it matters very much to some of the people running the show over in IT, it’s all the same to the end user.

Folks have debated the capitalization of “Internet” for a long time (this piece is recent but has links to some older ones). Would you believe that in some circles a full caps version (INTERNET) once held sway? Or that whether we should call it “the Internet” or just “Internet” was much discussed? Some media sources abandoned the big I awhile back. Some people feel very strongly about this, one way or the other (for the record, I’m not one of them — but I see value in the distinction).

As of their new edition, due out on June 1st, AP will no longer capitalize “the Internet.” It’s a nice move toward consistency, since many newspapers follow AP style, but I doubt the majority of people will notice. It’s been suggested that most people already use the little i, but I don’t think that’s proven by the data. Google N-grams shows that big I was still more than 8 times as common in 2008 (although it was on a downward trend, as little i was moving up). It’s too bad that fivethirtyeight’s Reddit Ngram viewer doesn’t recognize capitalization, because this would give us some valuable insight.

AP style is one of those things that “kinda sorta” matters, but like so many other things it’s important in a limited domain. It’s a big deal in print media, but even there it’s sometimes supplemented (and sometimes totally supplanted) by in-house style guides. AP style is nice to be aware of, sometimes damned handy to be able to turn to, but not the definitive be-all-and-end-all. It’s not exactly known for its cutting-edge use of the language, either. Maybe it’s just my familiarity with other more organized publications (CMS, MLA, OED), but while I like having AP around as a reference, I sometimes think it’s somewhat sloppy and the guide has always struck me as more of an informal collection of advice than one that was developed with a systematic approach. ‘Useful but not authoritative’ is one way it might be described. Users of AP style, especially those not working in the press, should view it as a set of generally agreed upon principles rather than as fixed prescriptions.

It’s sometimes behind the times, too. For example, AP is only now, in this 2016 edition, finally halfheartedly suggesting that “accident” shouldn’t be used to describe a motor vehicle crash or collision; NHTSA began purging “accident” from its vocabulary almost 20 years ago. Shunning “accident” has been standard practice for years in many places, such as law firms.

What do other guides think about the big I/ little i distinction? We’ll have to see who follows AP’s lead in future editions, and how soon, but here’s how things currently stand.

Garner (GMAU), at least in the latest version (2009; a new edition is due literally any day) barely gives it a mention, and that’s simply to confirm that it should be “Capitalized” (pg. 476). Unstated in that entry, but implied in the entry for World Wide Web, is that this is because it is a proper noun. That’s an important point AP doesn’t seem to have taken into account.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., 2010) explicitly mentions this issue in at least one place. In section 7.76 (pg. 372) “Internet” is presented in capital form, but it’s pointed out that this is because it is “part of the official name of a system or organization” and that it could be “lowercased when used alone or in combination.” In the examples given, there’s a distinction made between the use of the proper and generic noun, and how they’re capitalized. Here’s that line in full; capitalization original to the source:

Internet protocol (IP); the Internet; the net; an internet

In the glossary section, which is primarily supplied to give users of the Manual a complete reference on publishing terminology, it lists Internet unambiguously with a capital “I” (pg. 897). But it’s clear from the earlier examples that they understand the I/i proper noun/generic noun distinction.

Chicago includes a parenthetical note about “web” that needs mention:

In a departure, Chicago now considers web to be generic when used alone or in combination with other generic terms.

When spelled out in full, however, they still use caps, “World Wide Web.”

AP makes a similar suggestion. Their change to use lowercase w for all instances of “web,” announced at the same time as the big I / little i change, got less attention, probably because it was a smaller change. Their style was already most of the way there on that one. But their announcement contains some ambiguity. Is it still World Wide Web, capitalized? Or should World and Wide be dropped, shortening it to web in all cases? We’ll have to see what the 2016 edition advises when it’s released later in the year.

I don’t feel very strongly about this one way or the other. I’ve noticed the big I / little i change happening over time, but I suspect AP might have jumped the gun on actual usage by five years or more. They’ve also left an open question as to whether or not they accounted for why the original big I / little i distinction existed in the first place. It’s the same reason we have french fries, but someone from France is French; or why we serve meals on china but visit China. One is generic, one isn’t.

The definition in their guide (and the tweet that unleashed their news flurry) appears to be essentially unchanged from earlier AP guides — I have the 2011 edition at hand, and it seems to have been static for at least five years. It literally looks like all they did was change the capitalization on this entry. Hopefully, there will be slightly more guidance in the released version.

This isn’t the first time a capitalization issue like this has existed, and it won’t be the last. Did you know that when referring to the US Interstate highway system you should use a capital “I“? It’s true: you should. But a lot of people don’t. AP doesn’t mention “Interstate” directly — but it indirectly notes that it’s capitalized, within the entry for “highway designations.” It’s not clear where AP comes down on this: do you drive down the interstate or the Interstate? For what it’s worth, Chicago also seems to be in a gray area on this question (see 8.55 and 9.51), with best practice again coming down to whether or not it’s a proper or generic noun.

When it comes to the Internet (and the Interstate), it seems the choice is really up to you. I’m still, for now, in the camp that draws a distinction between the big I proper and little i generic noun forms, but you might not be. What you should always be, however, is consistent: if you adopt AP’s recommendation, then use it all the time. Don’t complicate things — and annoy your readers — by shifting back and forth.

If putting this post together has taught me anything, it’s that…I need to update some of my style guides! I’m current with Chicago, but MLA just put out a new edition (8th, in March). My Garner (the one that really matters) is still up-to-date, but a 4th edition is due any day now. I can’t believe it’s been almost five years since I last bought a new AP guide. It hardly seems like two. Time flies.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
This entry was posted in Culture, Language, Things you should know and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.