If you’re a writer or an editor or a grammar nerd, or if you just happen to do a lot of reading about technology and you’ve been around for a while, you may have noticed a trend for the word “Internet” to be written with a lower-case “i” instead of capital “I”. The process is called decapitalization, but “internet” is nothing new. In 2004, Wired News’ copy chief Tony Long wrote:
“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.”
Tony Long was wrong. There were—and still are—legitimate reasons for capitalizing the “I” in “internet. There are also compelling reasons for decapitalizing it. These competing forces are engaged in a back-and-forth tug of war, resulting in inconsistency in the spelling of the word. But one form is advancing over the other, and will ultimately win out.
The tug-of-war has been going on for years. Two years after Long issued his decree, Wired News was bought by Condé Nast, and the spelling of “internet” reverted back to capital “I”. Today the initial capital is also enshrined in the guidelines of many respected news sources, style guides, and dictionaries, including the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Associated Press, the American Psychological Association, the Chicago Manual of Style, and Webster’s New World College Dictionary. The online scholarly journal for which I am editor-in-chief, Language@Internet, capitalizes “Internet”, following this standard practice.
According to Bob Wyman, a Google tech staffer and long-time Net expert, the “I” should be capitalized to make clear the difference in meaning between the Internet (the global network that evolved out of ARPANET, the early Pentagon network), and any generic internet, or computer network connecting a number of smaller networks. WIRED’s Style guide, published in 1996 and edited by Constance Hale, makes the same distinction. Indeed, the earliest citations for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), from the mid-1970s, refer to “internet” in the generic sense and spell it with lowercase “i”, whereas all the later OED examples refer to the global network, using a capital “I”.
“If you never capitalize internet,” wrote Wyman in 2008 on his blog, “you are simply indicating that you don’t understand the technical distinction between the Internet and an internet.”
Yet in 1999, almost 10 years earlier, journalist Stephen Wilbers published a column in the Orange County Register predicting that words like Internet and Web would lose their capitalization over time. “If you like being ahead of the game, you might prefer to spell internet and web as internet and web,” he wrote. The reason usually given for this shift in usage is that the internet and the web are changing from proper nouns—unique, named entities—to generic nouns through common use. Indeed, most people (other than techies) are not aware of any internets other than the Internet—that distinction is no longer relevant in ordinary usage. And for many younger folks who have grown up with the technology, the internet itself is ordinary—just another communication medium, like the telephone, television, and radio.
There are plenty of examples in the history of the English language of decapitalization (and simplification) of common words that entered the language as unique, named entities. Words that were capitalized come to be written all in lower case. Multi-word expressions are joined by a hyphen and later condensed into a single un-hyphenated word. These processes are evident in generic terms derived from former brand names, such as frisbee (from Frisbee) and bandaid or band-aid (from Band-Aid, originally Band Aid), as well as in acronyms such as scuba (from SCUBA, or Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus).
Words in the technology domain get shortened and decapitalized the more they enter common usage, as well. The words homepage, online, email, website, and (we)blog started out as Home page, on-line, E-mail (from Electronic Mail), Web site, and Web log. The web (or Web) itself is a shortening of World Wide Web, which is also shortened as WWW.
The fact is, decapitalizing internet is part of a universal linguistic tendency to reduce the amount of effort required to produce and process commonly-used words. Not only does decapitalization save a click of the Shift key, but, as one marketing website put it, “Capital letters are speed bumps for the eyes when reading. They should be eliminated where possible.” Reduction of effort is a powerful driver of decapitalization. In addition, the use of lowercase “i” as a prefix in products like the iMac, iPhone, iPad, and iTunes—which Apple has said stands for ‘internet’—reinforces the trend.
Why, then, does initial capitalization in the word “Internet” persist in style guides and dictionaries? Part of the reason is that such sources are conservative by nature, lagging behind popular usage. Another part of the reason is semantics: The capital “I” reflects the perceived status of the global network as a unique entity. This usage is further bolstered by autocorrect and spellcheckers, which, as of this writing, still correct “internet” to “Internet”.
But the lower-case spelling has been gaining ground. “Internet” was twice as frequent as “internet” between 2000 and 2012, according to the Oxford English Corpus (a huge database that includes everything from academic papers to internet comment sections), yet “Internet” has outpaced “internet” by only a slim margin since 2012; by late 2015, that margin may have disappeared. CNN and CBS News Online have adopted the lower-case spelling, as have many overseas news sources. And many internet-native publications, those that have never seen a print edition, use the lower case. It’s really only a matter of time before all but the most conservative US publications adopt “internet” as the standard spelling.
Does it really matter whether you capitalize “internet” or not? For technology-related terms, using popular (shortened, simplified) forms can make the writer and publication appear tech-savvy and progressive, “ahead of the game”–but also, perhaps (in comments posted to an online forum, for example), uneducated. Conversely, using the standard form can make a writer or publication appear grammatically correct, but also potentially stuffy and out-of-date. Linguistic choices have social consequences, even if the choice involves something as apparently minor as capitalization.
Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that (de)capitalization is a political choice. Capitalizing the word Internet connotes that the technology is important, something few people would dispute. But rote capitalization also treats the complex, dynamic internet like a static object, contributing “to the types of simplistic dialogues about our technological future that are most problematic,” according to one critical source.
From a linguist’s perspective, all of this is fascinating. But editors crave consistency, and style rules exist to reduce distractions so that readers’ attention will be directed to content instead of format. At present, which spelling of internet is considered correct depends mostly on whether the context (or editorial policy) calls for formal, prescriptive usage or informal language use. The lower-case version will eventually win the day, though, driven by age-old principles of language change. In this respect, Stephen Wilbers and Tony Long were ahead of the game.