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A Not-So-Capital Idea

August 29, 2004

Traditionally, capital letters in English indicate Real Importance. The first word of every sentence. Names. We, the People. God, yes; the gods, no, unless you're Venus or Mars. Wars start out small and lowercase, then rise to two capitals and Roman numerals. Defunct ideologies -- think Communist, Fascist -- eventually get demoted to lowercase.

Now comes another adjustment in Language Land. Wired News, a voice of the Web World, has just made a Major Announcement. You may have missed it, especially if you're among the dwindling few still professing pride in computer illiteracy. From now on, the computer news source will not capitalize the word Internet. No, now relax. Sit down. It's true. The I-word will simply have to endure as internet, lowercase like radish.

The same goes for the Web, proudly wearing a capital letter since the last century, when it was invented by some and discovered by most of the rest of us. Wired News still uses World Wide Web. But web alone will no longer merit a large W. Worse, the Net will appear merely as the net.

Funny how subtle changes in a single letter's size can reflect otherwise invisible social attitudes and shifts. Internet (actually a conjunction of the original inter-network) and the Web have quickly become so well known that a little letter will suffice. Much as today's radio began as Radio. What then explains TV, not tv?

Oral conversations don't fret over capital letters. You say the words. Others listen. And everything goes smoothly. Unless you're speaking with an Australian on a dubious cellphone that delivers uncapitalized sentences like, "don't bury ham a monkey's on the terrace with a barbie cap."

Writers on Wired News, or a large urban newspaper, are very conscious of style. InconsiStency looks aMAteurish and hard to Read. Committees argue fine points, compiling entire stylebooks on such things as capitalizing Earth but not heaven. Capital letters connote Import -- Hurricane Charley. Their absence signals ordinariness -- the net. Style also gives Writers and editors numerous arcane things to fuss and argue over.

If this Newspaper were published in German, as say the Los Angeles Zeitung, copy Editors would capitalize every Noun, an Idea our Founding Fathers initially thought made Senfe, if One requiring Adjustments by the Eyes of Readers.

Part of the endearing and annoying charm of democratic language is the chaos when people Do Their Own Thing. How else to explain the widely accepted use now of ain't, a substitute for am not, which once warn't acceptable but, as the dictionary details, is certainly preferred to amn't?

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