On the Hyphenation & Capitalization of Various Internet Terms

by on August 10, 2011 · 15 comments

I’m no grammar Nazi. In fact, I’m closer to being a grammar anarchist. I’ve been fighting teachers and editors for years about split infinitives (they rock!), contractions (fine in small doses), and run-on sentence (OK, they are probably right about that one, but I just can’t control myself).  Nonetheless, it makes sense to have some basic ground rules for grammar and good writing. Sometimes, however, those rules just can’t be found.

I raise this issue because I’m finishing up my next book and I find myself struggling with the proper hyphenation and capitalization of various Internet terms. After much consultation with the Mercatus Center’s grammar czar Jennifer Zambone, I think I have finally grown comfortable with two rules I have long ignored (or just been horribly schizophrenic about using consistently) in my past writing. They are:

  1. Any word following “techno-” or “cyber-” should be joined to it and not hyphenated. Following the advice from our old friends Strunk & White, “The steady evolution of the language seems to favor union: two words eventually become one, usually after a period of hyphenation.” (Strunk & White, p. 41) Thus, it’s now “technopanic,” not “techno-panic.” Others: “cybersecurity” and “cyberwar” not “cyber-security” or “cyber-war.” [Note: We've already joined the term "cyberlaw," and "cyberspace" was never hyphenated, at least not by most writers.]  It would make more sense to keep these words separate if “techno” and “cyber” were stand-alone words, but they are not. That’s why “moral panic” makes sense and would never be joined whereas “technopanic” is joined. Likewise, “online safety” remains two words but it should be “cybersafety” if you insist on using the “cyber” prefix.
  2. Do not capitalize anything related to “eras” or “ages” (except, of course, when the word “Internet” is in the term.) Following the general rule set forth in The Chicago Manual of Style, “a descriptive designation of a [historical] period is usually lowercased, except for proper names.”  While “prehistoric periods are capitalized.. similar terms for modern periods are often lowercased.” [Chicago Manual of Style 8.71 - 8.73]  Therefore, it’s “digital age,” not “Digital Age.” Likewise, it should be “industrial era” and “information era,” sans caps. And it’s most definitely “digital economy,” not “Digital Economy.”  Things get more complicated when you bring “Internet” into a phrase since it has traditionally been capitalized for reasons that remain unclear. Thus, “Internet era” is correct but there is no need to capitalize “era.”

Do these rules sound right? If others are familiar with efforts to formalize these rules, let me know, but I haven’t seen anything that was helpful (as it pertains to these specific Internet phrases, that is.)

  • http://aheram.com Jayel Aheram

    “tea party’ not “Tea Party” unless it is an actual group (aka “Tea Party Patriots”).

  • Eponymous Coward

    The first problem to correct, however, is that people in Washington still think we can still use the prefix cyber- and not sound ridiculous.  Everywhere else, it instills irony.  In Washington, it instills fear. 

  • http://icecreamheadache.wordpress.com Libby_J

    I’m pretty sure I read in Wired or TechCrunch or somewhere last year that we’re going to stop capitalizing “internet.”

  • http://twitter.com/binarybits Timothy Lee

    Internet is capitalized because it’s a proper noun. There’s one Internet the same way there’s one White House and one Moon.

  • Jason Fisher

    @ Timothy,

    Thanks for that.  I have long since stopped capitalizing internet, because it seemed more than a bit silly, like ‘highway’ or ‘network’, but your explanation is spot on.  Just never thought of it.  There are millions of generic networks out there, but technically only one Internet.  Makes sense, finally.

  • NTTAWWT

    Please stop using the prefix cyber.  Pretty please with a cherry on top.  Seriously.

  • Anonymous

    I would capitalize a reference to an era if it’s in a scholarly context where the term is accepted (for instance, one of the geological ages, the eras of evolution, or possibly those of history).  But that is for scholarly writing, not forums that the public reads.

    Internet can be a proper or a common noun, depending on whether you mean “the [worldwide] Internet” or “an internet [one of many]“.  Those who don’t accept the latter usage were probably not in the computer field in the ’80s or earlier, when the various regional networks that made up the Internet had rules a sysadmin had to know about, so that telling them apart was important.

  • Anonymous

    I think that yet again this will merely prove that Strunk stinks as a source of advice. As Pullum pointed out, they were incompetents, their own book does not follow their advice.

    The cyber- prefix will most likely disappear completely. It is warfare, not cyber-warfare. I read my mail, not my ‘email’ these days. The only case in which the prefix will continue are those where doing it online is somehow inferior and the only example I can think of there is ‘cyber-sex’ which has already contracted to ‘cyber’.

    We never did talk about cyber-security in the field. It was always Information Security and that is only one form of Information Engagement which dates back to WWII and earlier.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Wrong.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Wrong.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    HERESY!

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Amen!

  • http://icecreamheadache.wordpress.com Libby_J

    I found it! It was in Wired, it was from 2004, and it was just a decision they used for their own publications, not a rule handed down from Mount Oxford.  http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2004/08/64596

  • http://aheram.com Jayel Aheram

    Not right or wrong, but the AP style has the movement in lowercase. Since a lot of newspapers follow the AP style, that is going to be norm.

    Source: http://www.ap.org/pages/about/pressreleases/pr_060210a.html

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Still wrong.

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