Should you capitalize the word Internet?
The question of whether the word internet should be capitalized is so passionately debated and rife with controversy that it has its own Wikipedia article. The latest salvo in the capitalization wars came from the Associated Press Stylebook, which announced that as of June 1, the AP’s style will stipulate that internet and web (with reference to the World Wide Web) should be lowercased. The AP’s is not the first style guide to insist on downcasing internet; many other publications prefer the lowercase form as well. And yet, attentive readers may notice that the headword form in Oxford Dictionaries continues to harbor a capital I (at least for now).
The reason Oxford has retained the capital I is simple: evidence. Our research samples continue to show that the capitalized form of the word is slightly more common. Over the past few years, the proportion of evidence for the two forms in our monitor corpus has remained relatively steady from month to month, with capital-I Internet accounting for about 54% of all examples. Dictionaries are lagging indicators of language change, waiting for new usages to become settled before recording them, and this particular change is still underway.
If we look into the geographic representation of the quotations, however, a more subtle trend emerges: in the UK, the preference for lowercase i is already dominant, whereas in the US, the capitalized form retains an edge (preferred usage in other countries also varies).
This overall trend is reflected in the geographical differences between the policies of official style guides. In the UK, many established mainstream outlets (including the Economist, Guardian, Financial Times, and the BBC) have declared themselves in favor of internet. In contrast, the publications which have taken the lowercase plunge in the US thus far have tended to be online or tech-focused outlets (like Buzzfeed, Wired, and Vox), while traditional prestige print publications and editorial bibles like the Chicago Manual of Style have continued to prefer the more conservative Internet. This UK-first pattern is reminiscent of the loss of the hyphen in email, which likewise was accepted first in British use before making its way to acceptance in the United States (the AP Stylebook accepted email in 2011). Similarly, the global tipping point from Internet to internet may soon be at hand.
Why did Internet come to be capitalized in the first place? In fact, the earliest use of the word, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1974, was with a lowercase i. Initially, there were many internets—the word was used to refer to any computer network comprising or connecting a number of smaller networks; it later came to refer specifically to the global network we know today, which was distinguished as “the Internet” as opposed to “an internet”. It isn’t uncommon for words to take on a capitalized form in a particular meaning regarded as a proper noun (for instance, Americans style the foundational document of their federal government as “the Constitution”); however, in the case of “the Internet”, by the mid-1990s the original need for disambiguation was largely obsolete, and the capitalization convention began to strike some writers and editors as unnecessary, dated, and aesthetically unappealing.
We are now in the midst of stylistic change with respect to the capitalization of Internet, but the process is proceeding in patchwork fashion and is far from complete. There are still many prominent institutional champions of the capital-I Internet, not to mention millions of private individuals who got into the habit of capitalizing and see no reason to change. But the AP Stylebook’s highly publicized announcement may serve as a catalyst for the global acceptance of the lowercase form. At Oxford, we will be watching our tracking corpus closely in the coming months, to see if lowercase internet makes new headway against the capitalized form.