Capitalizing Ubiquitous Words

InternetMaybe it's the weather, but the last couple weeks have been troublesome. Bizarre word combinations destroyed otherwise usable sentences, FTP and e-mail problems rendered me—and some blog commenters—transiently incommunicado, and yesterday two-week-old posts began to appear on the blog, uninvited and very unwelcome. Then last night, I got into a small argument over capitalization; specifically, whether or not Internet deserves to be capitalized, and in a related vein, the Web word. The antagonist thought both words are so ubiquitous that holding down the shift key for either one is nothing but a waste of time and energy. Only someone who has been in a coma for the past 15 years, he said, would fail to grasp the One True Meaning of those words.

Yeah, maybe if they appear in very informal communication—and if you know exactly who's going to be reading your stuff—those words can live without capitalization, but even then it's probably a bad habit. There's only one Internet, but that's why the word is capitalized in the first place. It's an actual name, like William, or Maple, or California; if you're going to forget the shift key, you may as well stop capitalizing those, too. Even the short form of Internet—i.e. Net—should be given proper recognition with a leading capital. Really, there ought to be an apostrophe in there to indicate the missing letters at the front, but rendering the word as 'Net is about as popular as calling your Chevy a Chevrolet. It's just going too far. But since there are many networks out there—from the little wireless net in your home to the big corporate intranet in your workplace—it makes sense to differentiate with a simple capital letter. Not just any network can be the Internet, at least not in the grammatical sense.

It's a similar situation with the Web, although there's arguably less chance of ambiguity in that case. Fortunately, you don't see or hear the phrase World Wide Web much anymore, and even the poor radio and TV announcers tasked with pronouncing www for every site are getting a break as more people understand the concept of a URL. Some of those guys were beginning to sound a lot like Porky Pig. Anyway, it's probably a good idea to keep that capital letter on Web, too, just because the word describes one web in particular. Although it's likely your readers will understand which web you're referring to by the context, it's always a good idea to avoid ambiguity; it's a positive habit, and may actually save you the trouble of backtracking—or worse, backpedaling—somewhere down the line.

It's a tangled web, but intriguing just the same.

If the context is the Worldwide Web, a sentence like that should never be allowed to exist on its own; without some sort of explanation surrounding it, the uncapitalized web has an entirely different meaning. On the other hand, capitalizing the word would immediately tell the reader exactly what you mean.

By the way, Internet and Web aren't synonymous, and are therefore not interchangeable. The Internet existed long before the Web came along; the Web was built upon the Internet. The distinction isn't merely semantic, because the Internet can exist without the Web, but not the other way around; the Web is a function—or a subset, if you prefer—of the Internet. The Web was conceived as a system to enable the transport and display of HTML-based material, but unlike the Web, the Internet doesn't rely on HTML to function. In fact, many of the old protocols and standards that defined the Internet in the old days are still in use today—POP3 still delivers the mail, FTP still transfers files, and neither Internet Relay Chat nor Usenet are dead. It's a brave new e-world, but in some ways, still a lot like the e-world of old.


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