Matters of style: Internet (or is it “internet”?) terms

Got into an interesting exchange on Twitter last night about how higher ed marketing people address writing style for Internet lingo.

I found it interesting that many people whom I consider to be “cutting-edge” when it comes to social media and online communication still lean heavily on the granddaddy of style guides, The Associated Press Stylebook. Even when it comes to writing about this online world we’re so immersed in. They still capitalize “Web,” hyphenate “e-mail” and consider “Web site” two words. I forgot to ask whether they still call blogs “web logs.” How quaint would that be?

I have nothing against the AP Stylebook. In journalism school, it was holy writ. And on our campus, we’ve used AP style as the foundation for our own university style. But let’s face it. The AP Stylebook editors are a conservative lot. They’re years behind the time. And they don’t have the humor of the old UPI Stylebook editors, who inserted this witty entry amidst all the stylistic rules:

burro, burrow A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist, you are expected to know the difference.

When it comes to Internet terms, I think the AP rules are not only humorless, but unnecessarily staid. Irrelevantly staid, even.

So over the past several years, we’ve veered away from the AP rules for our own in-house style when it comes to Internet terms. We’ve looked to other sources for guidance — namely, Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age, by Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon. As a result, we changed our style way back in the early 200s 2000s to lowercase “web,” combine (and lowercase) “website” and dehyphenate “email.” I don’t think it’s that radical. As we observe in our in-house style guide:

Missouri S&T uses a combination of Wired and Associated Press styles when writing about the Internet. Because most of our audiences are Internet-savvy, we feel more comfortable embracing the less formal style of Wired as opposed to the conservative approach of the Associated Press Stylebook.

One argument against violating the sacred rules of AP may come from the media relations folks, who will claim (as I once did) that we’re writing for journalists, and journalists follow AP style. Pish posh. We’re not writing for journalists anymore. We’re writing directly to our various audiences, and more and more of them are getting their information from onlline sources.

Back in 2004, Wired decided to lowercase the “i” in “internet, a move that I just can’t bring myself to embrace. Yet.

Still, I admire Wired’s chutzpah. The Wired editors’ argument for lowercasing the i-word makes sense. “The simple answer is because there is no earthly reason to capitalize any of these words [internet, net, web]. Actually, there never was.”

They went on to poke fun at those of us who clink to our style guides like well-worn security blankets:

True believers are fond of capitalizing words, whether they be marketers or political junkies or, in this case, techies. If It’s Capitalized, It Must Be Important. In German, where all nouns are capitalized, it makes sense. It makes no sense in English. So until we become Die Wired Nachrichten, we’ll just follow customary English-language usage.

Interestingly, Wired has yet to incorporate downstyle in its headlines. (The headline to the post referenced above was, “It’s Just the ‘internet’ Now.” Note all those capitalized words. What’s up with that — other than the first letter of every word except the one that most of us would uppercase?)

Anyway, with all of Steve Jobs’ new lowercase “i” words now so prevalent — iPods, iPhones — maybe now is the time to boldly embrace the newfangled lowercase internet.

Or maybe it should be iNternet? I bet Steve Jobs would love that.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

18 thoughts on “Matters of style: Internet (or is it “internet”?) terms”

  1. Great post. What do you think the future of media relations is? It seems to be such an antiquated profession (ironic since I studied it only 5 years ago in college…). It feels like media relations is going to have to morph into like “content creator” relations, or some far more eloquent title, since more and more people are shifting from getting their info from mainstream media to getting it from regular people sitting behind a computer.

  2. What do you think the future of media relations is?

    Great question, Karlyn! I agree with your assessment that the role of media relations on college campuses must become broader. It seems that media relations ought to be a component of a “strategic communications” approach that focuses on audience. Many media relations offices have very talented writers, PR “pitchers,” etc., but we need to face the fact that traditional media relations is just a component of an effective communications strategy, not the end-all.

    On our campus, we’ve been taking a “campaign” approach with many efforts. That is, we look at audiences, what we want to accomplish with them, and how best to engage them.

  3. I agree that we write our websites for our audience which generally are not journalists – in my case, our audience is students and future students. Although, consistency of style is a good thing I am less and less convinced that something as slow to evolve as AP style is a good choice for us. Is AP style the most engaging for our audience?

    Something to ponder as we look at the future direction of our website.

  4. In large part, you’re dealing with legacy issues because many college Web operations — like ours — originate from communications offices. Since I’m 108 years old, I was a journalist long before I transitioned into the Web, as did others. I still write news releases, newsletter articles, etc. in addition to work on Web copy, so AP Style is always front-of-mind. And, to be honest, unless we get a policy change from the boss (also a former journalist), I will continue to write copy for a Web site and tell users they can use this link to send e-mail.

  5. A post worth circulating, Andrew.

    I guess my follow up question then would be, what is the role of the web strategist in a media relations office of the future? I bantered yesterday about the role of the higher ed web strategists and how the lack of cross-pollination on campus among different departments whose people aren’t web savvy don’t bring with them the tools to the table to evaluate (And thus, use properly) these new technologies and thus, apply lots of old rules to new things.

    What say you?

  6. Excellent post, Andrew. I have been arguing about these style questions with folks on campus for years.

    Re the future of media relations: I technically run the “Office of Media Relations” at my university, but I have been pushing to change the name. It is anachronistic, to say the least. We find interesting stories, write about them (mostly for the web), and look for ways to get the information out. And we increasingly take an integrated approach, producing content that will have uses well beyond the external media.

    Yes, we are trying to reach more people directly with our content, but we still frequently rely on “the media” to act as an arbiter of that information. It is the media that has changed, not so much the concept of building relationships with them.

  7. If the role is changing, what are some of the skills we Media Relations Specialists need to develop in order to survive our evolving role?

    I Twitter, I Facebook, I blog … is that enough? Or are there other things I need to be looking at learning so I’m not left behind?

  8. BRAVO! (all caps intentional, I was really shouting!) I’m glad to see that I’m not the only person who finds the style guides’ approach to internet-related terms a bit old-fashioned.

    A style guide is just that– a guide. It helps people within an organization write consistently. I don’t think it matters what the guide is as long as it follows rules of good grammar and people use it consistently. Personally, I don’t capitalize internet or web and think websites are all one word. In fact, I also refuse to capitalize university, unless it’s used as a proper noun.

  9. I love this post.
    I have long thought that AP was too conservative when it comes to web language. The internet is a rapidly changing thing, and it seems that AP has not changed much at all, if any, in the few years I have used it.
    I think Missouri S&T does the right thing for the audience – use more up-to-date language.
    I also think that J. Todd Bennett has a fantastic point, it is a style GUIDE. I have run into a few people who are far too inflexible when it comes to AP guide. I can, however, see it both ways. We are taught that the AP guide is the “Bible,” if you will for Journalism. Many great journalists know the book by heart. However, many, if not most institutions seem to have their own versions of a style guide that out-weighs the AP guide.

    And yes, I think Missouri S&T should use iNternet from now on.

  10. I shuddered last year when PRSA published my white paper and changed “website” [our usage for years] to “Web site.” I do have a hard time downsizing Internet, though, no matter how snarky Wired may be about it. And as for me, media relations has metamorphosed into a totally new entity, though I’m not sure what I’d call it. Maybe the office of communications and engagement?

  11. Great post, Andrew.

    It appears that we are stuck in the early days of the Internet and e-mail. I’ve forwarded this post to my office’s style maven, since our style sheet covers print materials and the Web site.

    Interesting comments on media relations as well. We don’t have any positions in the office with media relations in the title, and our office is called Communications and Public Affairs. However, I often describe part of my job duties here as “media relations” (I did that just this morning), and haven’t really thought twice about it until reading these comments.

    I think Michael Stoner is close, but “engagement” just doesn’t roll off the tongue easily for me.

  12. I really like Michael Stoner’s suggestion for the new name of the office – descriptive and very accurate. And certainly ‘engagement’ is the new buzzword, at least on our campus.

    Our Director of Media Relations and his writer/editor’s roles are and have been changing greatly over the last couple of years, and I believe there will be even more significant developments in 2009 about the type of work they do, where they put their efforts, and what tools they use.

    As for the style stuff — while I was one of the ones with strong opinions that engaged in this discussion on Twitter last night, I don’t have any compelling reasons why we strictly follow AP Style here. I was taught by a couple of hardcore style supervisors (both former) and I just kept it going, to the point that it’s become one of my pet peeves when I don’t see them referenced “properly.” I even created a cheat sheet of Web lingo that everyone on my staff keeps on their desk, and I’ve passed around to others on campus.

    “Web site,” not “website,” “e-mail,” not “email,” “online,” not “on-line,” etc. No strong personal attachment to AP Style, or any style book for that matter, just following tradition here I suppose.

  13. We just had this EXACT conversation in our shop. While the AP Style Guide is the “official” style guide, those of us who write for our college do take some liberties when we think things need to be…different. For example, we also use “web” and “website” and “email.”

    Those of us writing content are former broadcasters and journalists. Interestingly, the one arguing most vehemently for following AP style is someone who just encountered it a few weeks ago…her argument being, “If you’re going to follow a style guide, you must follow the whole guide or none of it at all.”

    I think language evolves (the AP Style Guide will likely catch up eventually) and what we need to be worrying about is what our audience will understand…not hanging onto capital letters and hyphens.

  14. Media relations will continue to be about the art of finding new/interesting stories to pitch instead of cranking out the same old crappy news releases over and over. It doesn’t matter what mediums you employ if you don’t know how to tell a good story. As for style, the only newspaper I stubbornly trust is the New York Times. This is odd, and not necessarily the truth, because the NY Times does two things that drive me crazy: cap all of the words in the headline and use Mr. and Ms. before all of the names. The second thing is sometimes funny. I get a kick out of them referring to a serial killer or prostitute in polite language (Mr. Dahmer, etc.).

  15. Great feedback/thoughts/comments, all. And so much bloglove!

    George – Again, I don’t want to toss out the AP Stylebook. It’s a solid foundation. But it is not the “Bible.” Or if it is, then it’s the equivalent of the King James Version when the times demand something along the lines of The Message (depending on audience, of course).

    TimN – It is indeed a legacy issue. I hope the boss will consider easing up. Good luck! I’m in your corner (and I’m also a former journalist).

    Ron – The web strategist role needs to be more heavily front and center, in my opinion. We’ve allowed the web (like media relations, like design, like all these beasts) to become compartmentalized, to the detriment of our campuses.

    Jason – Not sure I can add anything to your comment, other than “Thanks” and keep fighting the good fight.

    Angela – What skills are needed? Great question. These days, it’s anyone’s guess. But I would think an inquisitive mind, a desire to explore the world of online media, would be a good start. Also, moving away from the specialization of the past toward more generalization would be good. Can you take decent digital photos? Video? Can you record audio? Can you mash it all together for a multimedia presentation on the web? If so, you’re way ahead of me.

    J. Todd – I agree with you about guides. But AP refuses to call their product anything other than a “StyleBOOK” (emphasis added). Ergo, the definitive answer.

    Michele – Well, hello there. You mean I didn’t drill into your head the idea that the AP Stylebook was more than just a mere “guide” (see response to J. Todd, above)? LOL. Good for you! Glad to see your comment.

    Michael – PRSA’s actions are ridiculous. Reminds me of the time Churchill got ticked at one of his lackeys who was trying to change one of his sentences, which ended in a preposition. Churchill wrote back on the memo (going from memory here, so it may not be exact): “This is the kind of errant pedantry with which I will not up put!”

    Joe – I agree that “engagement” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Combine that with Lance’s NYT comments, and I think of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith are pleased to announce the engagement of…”

    Rachel – Tradition is all well and good, but language evolves. Words that are now combined (i.e., “bookkeeper”) were once two words, and somewhere in the evolution, many of them were hyphenated (“book-keeper”). In time, you’ll be writing “website.” I’m pretty sure.

    Norma – Re: language evolving: true dat.

    Mr. Lance – I always thought media relations was the art of turning crappy news releases into pitches to the New York Times. It’s kind of like alchemy.

    Joe – “Mr. Loaf” is priceless.

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