Nouns and the Realpolitik

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April 14, 2018 by bradcharlesbeals

websiteI run a search for the term Web site and find these: website, web site, web-site, Website, Web site, Web-site, and even Web Site, and WebSite.

What gives? What’s a well-meaning writer to do?

What gives is that the term Web site hasn’t grown up yet. It’s a still-awkward post-adolescent not quite come into his own. And what I’m to do with it is the same as I would with any search: sift, cut, discern, and in the end go with whatever variation’s got the most clout.

In a way, I’m casting a vote. And in this way English usage works —sort of— like a republic. Its form and pattern of convention are shaped by popular will but (like your vote for President) along a circuitous route.

And like other democratic processes, at the murky center of things are the opinion leaders, the informal authorities that push and pull at the machine. Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, Wired Style — these are the fatcats in the smoke-filled room.

Here’s a common scenario: Wired magazine, let’s say, decides that the word Internet, heretofore capitalized because it’s a one-of-a-kind, will lose its proper-noun status and join the rank-and-file common nouns as humble internet.

There may be good reason to do this, as there was probably good reason to capitalize it in the first place, but none of that matters. This is what matters: Wired (out of a growing pressure within its own ranks maybe) has changed policy and will henceforth cast the term as internet, small i.

So what happens next? and how do we plebs know that this change has been made? Does a committee stamp something? Is there a press release, or even a memo to writers?

No.

And in this we find the proof of real clout. Wired is rendering internet in the common; and like magic, like opinion polls and approval ratings, the rest of us eventually come along and wonder how we could ever have been so silly as to capitalize internet.

And this sort of thing —slowly and out of sight, like committee work— is happening all the time, all around us.

Of course, a change in language usage doesn’t move at the speed of a presidential election cycle, but neither is it like stone eroding. Internet andWorld Wide Web were new to us less than two decades ago, less time than it takes for a human to reach adulthood, and in that time we’ve made both terms common, and effectively dropped the world wide.

But hang on! you say. The internet is an anomaly, statistically insignificant in a population as large as that of English words. Nothing in our lives has come about so quickly and convincingly as the internet.

And you’d be right.

But the example still illustrates the process. We could mark out similar patterns for words like baseball, railroad, airplane, email, and most other closed-compound words that, over time and use, have collapsed from two words into one, a kind of etymological entropy. But in each case the change is hurried along by one of these informal authorities. If Miriam Webster says that copy editor is a closed compound, then the publishing world (and soon the rest of us) will follow. Or maybe Webster follows Chicago.

It’s not exactly a chicken and egg thing, but it’s close.

That such wild, ungovernable processes determine usage can be frustrating, both to the rule junkie and the rule weary — the junkie because it all seems so un-rule-like, the weary because there’s still a rule-maker, however nebulous, determining something.

To cool the angst of both groups, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of at least some of the parameters for language “rules.” Here are a few:

  • In written language, rules are subject to the consensus of the governed (That sounds warmly democratic, doesn’t it?)
  • A rule without an exception is no rule — it’s a law, and as language users, we don’t like laws.
  • The rules of usage, grammar, syntax, and mechanics are the servants of expression, not its masters. This is a good, centering principle. Let’s repeat it, like a pledge, every time we sit to write.
  • While grammar and syntax tend to change more slowly as they are more closely tied to logic, usage and —to a lesser extent— mechanics follow the “logic” of fashion. But whose fashion? you ask. Keep reading.

 

So formal rules of language lie somewhere between guidance and prescription. Submit to them according to your own lights. But if you want to avoid the risk of obscuring meaning, if clarity is paramount (and it should be), then follow a good set of rules consistently.

But whose rules? To whom do I look as an authority?

To answer that, let’s extend further the democracy metaphor. Like an election-coverage map, usage has its red states and its blue. We’ll call those in the book-publishing industry red for no other reason than the authority they most often look to, The Chicago Manual of Style, is actually red. Those in the newspaper and magazine publishing industries generally lean toward the AP Stylebook. It’s not blue, but for the sake of our metaphor, it’s blue.

If I see myself as red, I’ll defer to Chicago on matters of usage and mechanics. If I prefer blue, I’ll line up with AP. If I feel no affinity to either party, I can join a third; there are other style guides out there. I can even call myself an independent and build my own rule book, picking the best from the big hitters and making up the rest. This is fine as long as I’m consistent throughout. Readability is key, and consistency of course is one of those considerate things you can do for your reader.

Put another way, when it comes to language, there is no legislative body, no executive branch looking to make war on or with words, and no high court handing down punctuation pronouncements. Authority is in the collective will, and the collective will, ultimately, is weighed and assigned value in the smoky backrooms.

So what do I do with Web site?

Professionally, I may live in a red state, but for this issue, I’m jumping to the party with the most clout in on-line usage. And since Wired makes a good case for casting Web site as a common, closed-compound noun, that’s how I’ll write it from now on:  website.

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