The year is 2005. You’re sitting at your desk, waiting for your Compaq desktop to connect to the Internet so you can type out an e-mail to your friends with links to your Weblog and MySpace profile, where you’ve posted photos of that Hoobastank concert you went to the other night.
A decade later, that sentence barely registers as English. Compaq and Myspace have given way to Apple and Facebook, nobody calls them “Weblogs” anymore (except parents trying to explain what their child does for a living), and hyphenating “e-mail” feels about as dated as a Hotmail address. Linguistic progress has laid waste to all of these grammatical anomalies, save for one: We still capitalize the word Internet. It’s a small distinction, one that many people don't notice—but to those of us who do, it's impossible to ignore. The lowercasing of “Internet” is long overdue.
Type “internet” into your text-messaging app: Your phone will probably autocorrect it to “Internet.” Type it into Microsoft Word, and the red squiggle of disapproval will appear underneath it. That’s because the word internet is uppercase in virtually every reference book on the English language: dictionaries, encyclopedias, the Chicago Manual of Style, even Wikipedia. Thanks to these linguistic gatekeepers, the overwhelming majority of scholarly papers, government documents, court proceedings, and other official written texts err on the side of capitalization, popular usage be damned.
“I doubt many of us think of it as a proper noun anymore (if many users ever did), but it is one,” said Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster. “Someone could find another way to connect us all to cat videos and personality quizzes, and then we’d have an Internet alternative.”
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.
If reference guides have largely made up their minds on the capitalization question, there is far less agreement among news editors. Buzzfeed, Vox, Quartz, and Gawker choose not to capitalize internet. The New Republic joined them last week. Fusion can’t make up its mind. Wired.com used to lowercase it, announcing in a 2004 update to its style guide that “there is no earthly reason to capitalize" the word; two years later, the website was bought by Condé Nast—which already owned Wired, the print magazine—and the site has been using "Internet" ever since. The Huffington Post, FiveThirtyEight, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker all capitalize the word.
Most importantly, so does the journalist's sacred tome, The Associated Press Stylebook. “There’s a great body of evidence to support capitalization,” said David Minthorn, its co-editor. On disputed matters like this, the Stylebook usually takes its grammatical cues from Webster’s New World College Dictionary. “It’s certainly true that there are some people who advocate lowercasing. Some people think it’s easier to spell that way. But at this point in time, we’re still capitalizing it as a proper noun.”
The AP Stylebook wields more influence over our modern language than nearly any other single entity. Most newspapers in the U.S. rely on it for their own copyediting, and even dictionaries themselves keep a close eye on the changes Minthorn and the rest of the staff make to each edition. It was the AP Stylebook that prompted many dictionaries to change “e-mail” to “email,” and “Web site” to “website.”
“Dictionaries are a lagging indicator,” explained Martin. “So until newspapers start changing their spelling, we’ll always reflect what style guides are saying.”
Whether or not to capitalize the word internet might not seem like big fish to many readers, and they would be right. Even Joseph Turow, a professor at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication who has been calling for decapitalization for over a decade, wryly said that on the scale of importance, “things like the Iran nuclear deal and global warming beat it.”
But neither is it simply a matter of correct grammar. How we think about and make use of words can have a profound impact on how we think about the things those words represent. Turow told the New York Times in 2002 that changing the capitalization would signal a shift in understanding about what the internet actually is: “part of the neural universe of life.”
That was perhaps a radical suggestion in the early aughts, but much less so in 2015. The United Nations declared access to the internet a fundamental human right four years ago, and the FCC announced this year that they would begin regulating the internet like a public utility. In the same way we don’t capitalize “telephone” or “cable,” we shouldn’t be capitalizing “internet.”
What will it take to break the stranglehold of capitalization? Sheer numbers.
“There’s a kind of dance that goes on between dictionaries and writers and editors,” said Merriam-Webster's Brewster, explaining that changes in public usage and changes to style guides are more likely to lead to changes in the dictionary. “It will be very interesting to see at what point writers and editors put internet in lowercase. That’s what we’re waiting for.”
That moment may not be far off. According to the Oxford English Corpus, a massive database that combs through billions of words in news articles, academic papers, and even internet comment sections, the usage of “Internet” was twice as frequent as “internet” between 2000 and 2014. But since 2012, “Internet” outpaces “internet” by just 54 percent to 46 percent margin. That margin could be even slimmer or perhaps erased entirely were it not for autocorrect and other spellcheckers, according to Martin. It's possible that by year's end, internet overtakes Internet for the first time.
“I would never say never,” Minthorn said, when asked whether the AP Stylebook would lowercase the word. “Usage does change. But I’m not sure if it’s changed enough in this case.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that The Guardian "recently" decided to lowercase the word internet. The outlet has done so for years.