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.)

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