AJR  Columns :     THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   March 2003

You Spell It “internet”...   

Web words come of age, prompting debate among style mavens.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

About a month ago, I started writing "website" instead of "Web site" in personal notes and correspondence. After six years of obediently engaging the shift key, the former suddenly seemed acceptable and the latter seemed antiquated and, well, not worth the effort.

When lingo becomes familiar, new terms lose their starch and slide into a more casual style. Trademarks are forgotten, words merge and hyphens fall away. That's happening now to the language of the Internet--too swiftly or not swiftly enough, depending on whom you ask.

Along with The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style, most newspapers and online news sites still agree on the big three: Web site, Internet, e-mail. In the mainstream press, the gradient begins with terms such as online (or on-line, if you prefer) and various Web- and e-derivatives. AJR moved from Web log to Weblog not long ago, when the term came into common use.

The impatient catalysts in this revolution are populist bloggers, free-thinking writers and the casual masses. For what it's worth, "website" appears more often on the Web itself than "Web site." And now, even "Internet" has been challenged.

In a December 29 article, New York Times reporter John Schwartz publicized the crusade of Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who convinced his editor to drop the capital "I" from Internet in portions of his new book.

"The capitalization of things seems to place an inordinate, almost private emphasis on something," Turow is quoted as saying. "The Internet, at least philosophically, should not be owned by anyone." The heart of the professor's case, Schwartz explains, is that the Internet is now part of everyone's life, like air and water.

To equate the singular network of computers called the Internet to a general technology such as television or radio is ignorant. To agree that the Internet is a trademarked, proper noun and then campaign to demote it on philosophical grounds, as Turow does, is at least an informed position. This e-curmudgeon isn't about to jump on that bandwagon, but several Web journalists and bloggers already have.

Here's some relief for the sticklers: Internet style doesn't always roll downhill. In 2000, Wired News copy chief Tony Long forged a 1,500-word essay explaining why the online news site was inserting a hyphen into e-mail (among other changes) shortly after endorsing "email" in an edition of its still-revered guide, "Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age." Long asserted that the site's early style reflected the euphoric, convention-thrashing environment that produced it. When digital culture hit the skids, so did its language.

"[N]o editor worth the name can justify looking on benignly while the English language is butchered in the name of some tin-pot revolution, regardless of its narcotic effect at the time," Long wrote. "Wired News now inserts a hyphen into e-mail (and every other e-word) as God and Noah Webster intended."

Kudos to Wired News for standing up for tradition. And kudos to anyone who chooses to squeeze the hyphen out of "email" because it's easier to type and no longer jolts readers. Cheers to those who decide that "website," "webmaster" and "weblog" are perfectly acceptable, but that "Web" should always be capitalized to distinguish it from other meanings. Most of us aren't ready to let go of the capital "I" in Internet, but why begrudge those who have?

That's the thing about style--there's no need to agree. What works for one publication might not for another. House style expresses the philosophy and personality of an organization.

The real crimes against Net lingo are inconsistent and uninformed use. Most organizations finally have achieved consistent Internet style in their stories and among their media partners, but there are multitudes of programmers and designers who missed the memo. It's all too common to find a Web site that uses "e-mail" throughout its articles, but scatters "email," "E-mail" or "Email" arbitrarily across graphics, contact pages and navigation buttons.

No less grating is the reporter who fumbles for the proper way to introduce a Web site, ending up with something like "click on over to our Web site" or the neophyte catchphrase "log on." In 2003, journalists ought to be able to tell a Web address from an e-mail address and know the common terms of the technology. The Web is a growing part of our business and of our readers' and viewers' lives; we should all care enough to speak about it consistently and intelligently.

Conquer all that, and spell "Web site" however you wish.