On Tuesday, days before the launch of their newest iPhone, Apple released iOS 10, a new operating system for the company’s lineup of mobile devices. The update includes all kinds of new features and tweaks, some more welcome than others (looking at you, iMessage). But one significant change in Apple’s coding has gone unreported: the company’s predictive type and autocorrect features no longer encourage users to capitalize the word internet. Yes, it’s a big deal.
Champions for lowercase internet were already having a banner year in 2016. In April, the Associated Press announced that they were amending their style guide to de-capitalize the word, and the New York Times followed suit in short order. Dozens of publications—including ThinkProgress—have been using lowercase for years, but the AP Style Guide is the single most important reference book for the media industry. Thousands of newspapers across the country rely on the style guide for copy editing, and a change in their book ripples through the entire linguistics community.
“There’s a kind of dance that goes on between dictionaries and writers and editors,” said Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, the reference book company and publishers of their eponymous dictionary. In an article in the New Republic last year, she explained that dictionaries tend to take their cues from public usage and style guides.
At the time, public usage by English-speakers worldwide was almost evenly split between capitalized Internet and lowercase internet. The Oxford English Corpus, a massive database that combs through billions of written words ranging from scholarly articles to the comments section of news websites, found that just over half—54 percent—of the uses of the word “internet” were written in uppercase since 2012, a sharp decline from the decade prior. In the United States, that number is higher, while in the UK, barely a quarter of all “internets” were capitalized.
But with more and more online content being consumed and written via mobile devices like iPhones—which, until Tuesday, auto-corrected “internet” to “Internet”—it’s entirely possible that this single tweak by Apple could have far-reaching implications on the global usage of the word.
And the significance of a word’s usage extends beyond simple aesthetics.
How we think about and make use of words can have a profound impact on how we think about the things those words represent. Turow told the New York Times in 2002 that changing the capitalization would signal a shift in understanding about what the internet actually is: “part of the neural universe of life.”
Stop Capitalizing the Word InternetDictionaries and style guides treat it as a proper noun, but no one else does.newrepublic.comThe United Nations has declared access to the internet a fundamental human right, and the FCC announced last year they were reclassifying broadband internet access as a utility, subject to the same regulatory protections as our public telecommunications networks. Capitalization of the word serves to reinforce the idea of the internet as a privately controlled entity, not a publicly available commodity.
Language purists have raised seven kinds of hell in recent months, protesting the change as an affront to the English language. The internet is still a proper noun, they argue, and therefore beholden to the same grammatical rules as any other proper noun, including capitalization.
They’re not wrong. The internet as we know it is indeed a proper noun, the largest example of an inter-network. But language, like law or religion, is also meant to adapt to the times we live in. Nobody thinks of the internet in technological terms anymore—a series of tubes!—but rather as the amorphous conduit through which we receive our mail, our music, and our cat videos.
It’s unclear whether Apple was simply responding to the recent decisions by the AP and other media organizations when they did away with capitalized internet, or if they made an executive decision on their own. Ironically, despite their apparent reluctance to embrace the lowercase i, it was Apple that introuced many consumers to the idea of lowercase internet in the first place, with their rigorous policing of the proper spelling of iMac and iPod and iTunes. The i in iMac? It stands for internet. Facebook and Twitter are split on capitalization (Facebook down, Twitter up). Google capitalizes internet, both in their own corporate blog and on their popular Android mobile operating system (as of Marshmallow, the most recent public Android release, the default keyboard still autocorrects internet to “Internet”).
It will take some months—perhaps even years—to see if public usage of lowercase internet in the United States begins to more closely mirror usage in the UK, but with Apple freeing “internet” from the inescapable clutches of autocorrect, expect to see the change quicken.