Language evolves. Like it or not, the way we write and speak has changed over the years, and continues to do so at a rate which alarms many, and confuses others. So, rules about language usage change. What’s more, they change at a varying rate, so what is accepted in one English-speaking country may still be considered wrong in another. Some rules remain constant, invoking no debate. Those who don’t know the difference between its and it’s can quickly establish the rules. Other matters are more subjective, with capitalisation the cause of some debate.
The trigger for this piece was my recollection of a discussion on Twitter. The Guardian Style Guide (@guardianstyle) is the Guardian newspaper’s reference point for all things written – where the paper’s journalists turn for answers on such matters. Most major publications have their own style guide, and those that don’t will, in all likelihood follow the rules laid down by one of the big boys. I personally have two style guides so that I can cross-reference: those produced by the Guardian (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide) and the Economist (see http://www.economist.com/research/styleguide/). Each has fuller print editions available to buy.
Now while these guides are available for public consumption, their primary purpose was to ensure consistency within the authoring newspaper’s publication. Consistency within a single document or publication, as any professional proofreader will assure you, is extremely important. And that’s because the goal of any document is to communicate clearly an idea or a set of messages. Sometimes by simply missing out a hyphen we can change a meaning to a quite disastrous alternative; an example quoted by fellow freelance copywriter @TurnerInk could spark farcical fallout: extra marital sex and extra-marital sex. But even if we recognise that two different spellings, or for the purposes of this piece, two different instances of capitalisation, have the same meaning, their simultaneous inclusion within one document will give many pause for thought. And that’s a distraction from the purpose of the document: to deliver information clearly.
Back to Twitter. I’d picked up on a message from @guardianstyle recommending: webpage, website, the web, world wide web, and retweeted it, along with the hopeful plea that ‘internet’ receives the same lower case treatment. Joy of joys, the guide was back to me to confirm my strongly held opinion. Soon after, several Twitter users (Twitterer? Tweeter? Should we just call ourselves Twits and be done with it? Oh, and here the capitalisation shows that in this instance, though not precluding twittery in everyday life, we are twits on Twitter) had joined the debate, questioning this lower case judgement.
It’s understandable they would. Many reference sources still use an initial capital for internet. I’ve just read Michael Connelly’s latest book, and find that his use of ‘the Internet’ really distracts me from the otherwise flawless flow of his writing. The reality is that internet is an abbreviation of internetwork – several networks joined together – and that lots of internets exist around the world, but they’re not THE internet. Their argument therefore is that the Internet is quite different from an internet. Now that’s ok so far as it goes, and there’s no doubting the logic. I’m going to come back to that statement in just a moment. For now, let me return to the more general rule that the primary purpose of a document is to communicate with clarity.
Clarity doesn’t just incorporate meaning, it includes readability; the flow with which that information can be absorbed without becoming a chore. The usage of language and all its tools should be there to enhance the reading experience and not to distract from it. Excessive use of capitals distracts from the message, undermines the legitimate use of capitals, and is shown by readability studies to make copy harder to read. It doesn’t diminish the importance of the words themselves. So back to the internet. Yes, there’s more than one internet. But consider the argument for Internet: that the Internet is quite different from an internet. True, but every single reader of this (and, I believe, any document using either or both upper or lower cases) will immediately recognise that the use of ‘the’ in ‘the internet’ means the reference is to the world wide web, whereas ‘an internet’ refers to a more general network of networks…and in such cases where one might be writing purely about a network of networks, the subject matter – the context – would make the more general meaning clear.
And in fact those people questioning my opinion and that of @guardianstyle had already recognised that we were referring to the web. And in this context right here, you didn’t for a moment think I was talking about a spider’s web, did you? No – because our knowledge and acceptance of such language has moved on since these terms were introduced. It doesn’t make it inherently wrong to use a capital for internet, but doing so will be a distraction for many. That’s even truer in any document that might be littered with acronyms and initialisations, so prevalent in the technology industry for example – so why add to the eye-strain?
What’s more, it may alter your readers’ perception of you. Let’s take Michael Connelly, an outstanding and successful author, whose name is on my top ten when making recommendations. I know he’s active on social media – I follow him on Facebook – and yet whenever I read ‘the Internet’ in one of his books, I imagine him picturing the internet as some great wizard or unexplained magic, or his character instantly as some comedy backwoods inbred with a grandmother who’s also his daughter. Ridiculous I know, but I can’t help it. It feels, already, like antiquated usage; a concept referenced by someone wholly unfamiliar with it.
That’s not good, is it? That’s a distraction. I still know the meaning, but I’m off doing childish ‘that-thar gud-fer-nuthin’ Innernet bin poisonin’ yer mind boy’ impersonations in my head. So get yourselves on the internet (I understand you’ll require something known as a Personal Computer) and order a style guide.