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American Journalism Review
You Say E-Mail, I Say e-mail  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   May 1996

You Say E-Mail, I Say e-mail   

By Alex Frankel
Alex Frankel is a San Francisco-based writer.     


As if it weren't difficult enough for journalists still recovering from the demise of the typewriter age to catch up with the information age, brave editors who venture into cyberspace coverage confront style issues that often are more confusing than learning the new language of hypertext or the rules of netiquette.

For example, should the oft-touted Information Superhighway be capitalized? What about the Internet? Is it acceptable to refer to it as just the 'Net, and, if so, should there be an apostrophe?

Copy Editor, a newsletter for professional copy editors, brought together seven copy chiefs from computer publications in an attempt to iron out such questions and to better understand the new lexicon of computer technology--good news for copy editors charged with keeping the ever-expanding technical language of the computer revolution uniform.

The editors, from Wired, PC Computing, InfoWorld, MacUser, PC World, MacWeek and Computer Life, met at Wired's San Francisco headquarters. Copy Editor's editor and publisher, Mary Beth Protomastro, moderated the debate over what she describes as "the computer language of the next millennium."

One of the first subjects on the table was an issue that probably never enters the consciousness of the average reader, but plagues copy editors on a daily basis: Is the correct term "e-mail" (the one preferred by AJR style guru Jean Cobb), "E-mail" or "email"? Wired Assistant Managing Editor Constance Hale said she doesn't hyphenate the abbreviation for electronic mail; she thinks "e" will precede many words in the future: "emoney" might stand without a hyphen, but not "eart," she cautioned. InfoWorld's Stephen Lawson said his publication decided on E-mail, offering the rationale that "E" stands for "electronic" just as the letter "A" stands for "Atomic" in "A-bomb."

Another debate emerged over "online" vs. "on-line." Richard Johnson of PC World said he decided against hyphenation, because online referred to "sort of a metaphorical location, like 'outdoors.' "

The debate continued on to issues such as whether or not CD-ROM titles should be italicized, whether to put online publications in roman type and how to break a lengthy Web address when it won't fit on a line. But consensus was elusive. The only thing all the editors agreed upon was that "World Wide Web" should appear as three capitalized, non-hyphenated words.

Computer Life's Rebecca Freed says that even if the meeting didn't provide definitive resolution of every copy editing question, it did give her an opportunity to learn how other publications arrive at what might seem like mysterious style decisions. She says that copy editors for high-tech publications fight a constant battle to keep up with the new technologies and the words they spawn, and it helped her to know that others confront the same dilemmas.

"Copy editing for high-tech publications doesn't have more rules than other kinds of copy editing," Freed says, "but affects more people than other technical writing, such as medical and scientific writing." Freed says she seeks to strike a balance between user-friendly terminology and technical jargon.

And just as the copy editing authorities at the San Francisco summit had a difficult time compiling an authoritative guide to cyberterminology, others searching for definitive answers will be hard-pressed as well. The Chicago Manual of Style, now in its 14th edition, has a small selection of computer terms, but hardly offers enough guidance for an editor in the computer press. The manual recommends consulting "The Oxford Dictionary of Computing" or Microsoft Press' "Computer Dictionary" for additional help.

But perhaps relief is on the way. HardWired, a new division of Wired Ventures Inc., the book publishing arm of Wired, plans to publish "Wired Style: Principles of Usage in the Digital Age" in September. Dubbed the "Strunk and White for the next millennium," the new book will include more than 500 high-tech words and terms, along with 10 "principles for new English usage."

But some publications are content to let others answer the burning questions of cyberspace style. Venerated style arbiter Allan M. Siegal, an assistant managing editor of the New York Times, points out that his paper writes for a general readership that is not computer savvy and not overly concerned with whether or not "URL" should be spelled out on first reference. Siegal says the Times, which hyphenates online, has no qualms about remaining in what he describes as the "rear guard" of adopting newer style rulings. "We are more concerned with the comfort of our readership," he says, "than being on the bleeding edge."

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