Vocabulary and Style in the Digital Age

By William Dunkerley

One of the challenges of editing in the Digital Age is the rapid onslaught of new terms. For example, until just 6 years ago, the word “tweet” referred almost exclusively to a kind of bird vocalization. Now, of course, it is most frequently heard as the name for a Twitter message.

Just to roughly gauge the impact of change, I did a Google search with the term “tweet+bird”. It produced 76 million citations. Then I used “tweet+twitter.” The result was 3.3 billion hits!

The digital universe is spawning new words to describe the new things and processes that are arising online. When is it proper to begin incorporating these new words into your texts? And what is the correct style for rendering the new terms? These are important questions for editors.

The answers can be sometimes difficult to find. Established references such as dictionaries and style books have been traditionally slow moving. Writing in Editors Only back in 1989, Dr. Frederick Mish, editorial director for dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster explained: “We make decisions about which new words and meanings to enter on the basis of a record produced by our continuous observation of the language over many decades.” As a result, said Mish, “…considerations of available space tend to favor long-established words over very new ones… .”

As an editor, once you decide to adopt a new word, the question of style arises. For example, is it “Web site” or “website?”

Two years ago at Editors Only, we decided to survey readers. During the period from late March to late May, 2010 we heard from 383 editors. Here’s the usage they reported:

–Web site: 157

–website: 212

–web site: 9

–Website: 5

You might think that this settles the debate. In the case of “Web site” v. “website” it would appear that website had simply won. Well, it did win, but it isn’t that simple.

At the start of our survey, “Web site” was actually in the lead. Take a look at these results from before mid-April:

Before:

–Web site: 83

–website: 60

–web site: 3

–Website: 3

Then, for the latter period of our survey, the results were:

After:

–Web site: 74

–website: 152

–web site: 6

–Website: 2

What happened here? Why did “website” pull into the lead, and “Web site” fall into disfavor?

The turnabout coincided with an announcement from the Associated Press on April 16, 2010. Its online stylebook had abandoned “Web site” in favor of “website.” Clearly, the AP decision carried a lot of weight. What’s puzzling, however, is what took them so long!

Actually, the style conventions adopted by any publication should take into account the vernacular of its audience. For a group of readers unfamiliar with the Internet, the old “Web site” rendition may indeed be helpful. For a more Web-savvy audience, it might sound anachronistic. It is important to take these factors into consideration when establishing and updating in-house style guides, so that house style never becomes outdated.

Here’s a historical example for comparison. On July 21, 1933, The Pittsburgh Press published a piece by a science writer about a mythical race between a “space ship” (two words) and a comet. But, by April 12, 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin actually traveled into space, The Huntsville Times reported that he did it in a “spaceship” (one word). More recently, there’s been the transition from day care to daycare, and health care to healthcare.

At Editors Only, we adopted “website” back in 1998. We did so because we saw that when editors spoke of a website, it was actually being spoken as one word. “Web” was not modifying the word “site.” A Web site and a grave site were not really just two different kinds of sites. Editors knew what a website was, and they had a name for it — even if the style of all their publications didn’t treat it as one word. We also decided to continue to capitalize Web when referring to the Internet. We did that for two reasons. First was to distinguish it from the “web” of web offset printing, and second was because the word is part of the proper noun World Wide Web. It’s sort of like calling the United States “the States.”

AP isn’t the only organization that has been clinging to “Web site.” Webster appears to still use it. But, in Dr. Mish’s Editors Only article, he explained, “Most modern lexicographers see the dictionary as, above all, a record of the vocabulary of our language, and especially the vocabulary current [emphasis supplied] when the dictionary is published.”

It would seem good to apply that principle even more rigorously today!

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