April 2, 2016

Associated Press editors announced a new stylebook change Saturday ahead of a session at the annual American Copy Editors Society’s conference — the 2016 stylebook will lowercase the words “internet” and “web.”

“The changes reflect a growing trend toward lowercasing both words, which have become generic terms,” AP Standards Editor Thomas Kent told Poynter via email.

The changes are two of many in recent years that reflects evolving usage. Last year, Adam Nathaniel Peck, an associate editor at the New Republic, made the case for de-capitalizing “internet,” noting that most people likely don’t think of it as a proper noun anymore.

The giveaway, say linguists, is that pesky little determiner that usually accompanies the word internet. ‘We use ‘the’ when we talk about the internet, and that perpetuates the usage of the uppercase,’ said Katherine Connor Martin, the head of U.S. English Dictionaries at Oxford University Press. It’s the difference between an internet and the Internet. The word’s origins date back to the 1970s, when an ‘inter-network’ was just a collection of smaller networks that communicated using the same protocols. Functionally, the internet of today is just the largest example of an internet—which, incidentally, means that the word entered our vocabulary in lowercase.

Susan C. Herring wrote about the capitalization of internet last year for WIRED. Here’s the case for going small again:

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.”

Reactions to these changes, which again tend to reflect usage but also shake up what feel like set-in-stone rules we learn as young journalists, are usually quite loud.

In 2014, when the AP announced “over” and “more than” could be used interchangeably, Poynter readers had a lot to say:

Also in 2014, the AP announced that it was now style to spell out the names of states instead of abbreviating them. Readers also had a lot to say on that change.

In 2013, the AP changed use of illegal immigrant. In 2011, e-mail became email. And in 2010, Web site became website.

Lowercasing web won’t be a stretch for Ben Zimmer, a Wall Street Journal columnist and executive editor of vocabulary.com and Visual Thesaurus.

“It’s become something a bit more generic in people’s understanding,” he said.

Internet, on the other hand, is a term that has encompassed a global network, he said. So it feels more like a proper noun.

Copy editors have to follow these changes closely, of course, but other journalists tend to blow these rulings out of proportion, Zimmer said.

People hold the AP Stylebook up as the arbiter of style, “when in fact what they’re really doing is reflecting usage they see out there.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a comment from The Associated Press.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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