Capitalization and the Internet


Posted by Louis Brandy on 13 April 2009

I recently found myself writing a proposal. Someone kindly informed me that the word "Internet" should be capitalized. I doubt very seriously, left on my own, the thought of capitalizing the word "Internet" would have even occurred to me. I had to sit down and look up the "official" rules. Here's roughly what I discovered:

  1. The Internet is capitalized when referring to the interconnected worldwide network of computers.
  2. An internet would be not capitalized when referring to any old interconnected network of computers (although this is almost universally called an intranet).
  3. When used as an adjective, it depends. For example, there are many internet protocols.

The 1980s

Despite the correctness, reading text where people discuss the Internet with a capital "I" looks old-fashioned to me. It would be like someone referring to their e-mails from the Web site. There's no doubt in my mind that the transformation from Internet to internet is inevitable (just like email and website). In both informal and semi-formal online writing, we are already there.

This old-fashioned nature is especially apparent (bordering on wrong) when you mix capitalization. It just looks wrong to proclaim that you need an internet connection to get on the Internet. How do you capitalize the sentence, "We've lost internet".

Why

Can anyone explain to me why the Internet should be capitalized but not the Highway System? Or the Frequency Spectrum? Or the Sky? Maybe it's because we distilled the rather longer "interconnected computer network" into internet and that qualifies it as a proper name (except for the obvious fact that sometimes you can have just an internet).

Apparently, all the little internets are unworthy but the big one gets its proper name. Are there any other words that behave in this way? (edited to add: the Moon is arguably another example).

This separate naming convention supposedly reduces confusion. Yet, it did such a poor job that we invented and now use the word intranet instead of "internet" when referring to some networks of computers. No one uses the word "internet" to refer to anything but the Internet.

Apparently, there's a consensus

As of now, most "experts" agree that when referring to the Internet, you need a capital "I". I wish I had a vote. As it turns out, almost all informal and semi-formal online writing has abandoned these ancient rules. It appears, equally, that all style "experts" believe that formal English will lose the capitalization requirements eventually.

It strikes me odd that we need to wait. I figured that languages should be a bit more organic. I presumed that if "everyone" either knows or believes it will be a certain way in the future, we should go ahead and skip the waiting step. It's not like there is some guy in England deciding what is and isn't right -- that's why we fought the war.


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