Capitalize 'Internet'? AP says no – Vint Cerf says yes

The great grammatical argument of our age

Shouting match

While nerds have the pronunciation of "gif" to argue over, the rest of the world continues to battle over whether the word "internet" should be capitalized or not.

This week the Associated Press stepped into the breach and announced from here on in, it would use a lowercase "internet" and a lowercase "web."

Inevitably that kicked off just the latest in a long-running series of arguments between self-appointed protectors of our grammar. It's gone so long that it has its own Wikipedia page.

Most notable among the critics this time, however, was Vint Cerf: the so-called "father of the internet," since he co-invented the critical TCP/IP protocols that the Internet relies upon.

Vint is not at all happy with the lowercase approach, arguing that AP has failed "to understand history and technology." His reasoning is that there is a public Internet and a private internet – an internet that does not connect to the outside world but uses the same protocols. He argues: "By lowercasing you create confusion between the two and that's a mistake."

Ignoring the fact that the term "intranet" has grown to describe such networks, Mr Cerf has a point. There is, after all, only one "Internet" – or, at least, only one internet that people constantly refer to.

Network of networks

Except of course there isn't. The Internet is made up of hundreds of thousands of smaller internets that all decide to work together. Except of course when they don't – like when China creates its own version of the Internet within its geographic boundaries.

The big argument boils down to this:

While there is a thing we call "the internet" and we all know what we are referring to when we say it – unlike, say, a car – the term has become so common and generic that it no longer makes sense to uppercase it.

But has it?

Well, until this week, the Associated Press – which has what is probably the most widely followed style guide in the English speaking world – decided that the Internet was in fact a "proper noun." Now it is persuaded otherwise.

Meanwhile, the also popular Chicago Manual of Style is sticking with uppercase because they believe the internet remains one big entity.

Another key decider of spelling tastes is sitting on the fence. The Oxford English Dictionary is taking a broader perspective on the issue. It is currently using an uppercase "Internet" because, naturally, that was where we started, when it was a new thing.

But it is definitely looking at a potential lowercasing in future, and in fact has run the numbers to see if that cultural shift is happening.

The short answer is yes in the United Kingdom, but no in the United States. Over 60 per cent of Internet usage in the US is still uppercase; whereas it is the "internet" – lowercase – three-quarters of the time in the UK, largely thanks to big style trend-setters the Economist and the BBC going lowercase.

Deal with it

The reality is that the shift to lowercase is inevitable.

Just as the AP created a furore when it dropped the hyphen in "e-mail" back in 2011 ("But it stands for electronic mail!" wailed traditionalists), the fact is that when something becomes so generic it simply does not make sense to include exceptional syntax.

Anything that is not lowercase in a sentence is specifically there to highlight the fact it is in some way different. It causes the reader to pause, albeit very lightly, and account for the fact that the word is somehow special and standalone and should not be confused with a generic word.

That's why a sentence about how a "trump card has united the different states" is very different from "Trump card played in the United States." Likewise hyphens – they should only exist if there is a need to provide greater clarity: and who, to be honest, is confused by the word "email"? Less is more.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, agrees. He has been saying for years that the web should be lowercase. AP is just now catching up.

Examples

The truth is that each time in this story we have written the word Internet, it has caused you as the reader to note it. Whereas when we simply refer to the internet, it is picked up in the flow of the sentence.

And the internet is now such a constant part of our everyday lives (just reflect on the number of times you have said the word "internet" today), it no longer makes sense to keep giving it special status.

By the way, the same is true of brand names. And no, we're not talking about Biro (which always sends a lawyer's letter if you lowercase it). We're not even talking about xerox (which is the reason you get those letters). What about bikini? Or escalator? Or zipper? Or granola? Or trampoline? All of them were brand names.

How about acronyms? Well, you say, you can lowercase everything but the first letter if you can pronounce the word. True, but what about laser and scuba? Should it be LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) or Laser? SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) or Scuba? Or does laser and scuba just make more sense now that their novelty has worn off?

And while we're here, what about diesel fuel (developed by Rudolf Diesel), or a leotard (thanks Jules Leotard), even a mausoleum (courtesy of Mausolus).

The Reg position

As to what The Register's official position on the word Internet is? Well it is both hopeless and instructive. We do not have a position. But we use lowercase "internet" usually. Why? One of our editors explains thus:

We should capitalize it. But I can't be bothered to hit the shift key every time.

And that, my friends, is why lowercase wins out. If it's not worth the extra step, it's not worth the extra step. ®

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