JUNE 1999

Unsolved mysteries: Web site or website?

The Internet is here to stay. There is no doubt about that. Many people see the Internet as a final frontier, where anything goes. This is certainly vividly expressed by the fact that consistent linguistic rules for the related vocabulary have yet to be established.

If last century's slogan was "Go West, young man" then the modern equivalent must surely be "Go Web". Not only are the world's stock markets soaring with shares in the latest cyber-companies, but you can hardly find a print advertisement anymore that does not refer you to the advertiser's site for further information. However, scan the world's English-language press and you will discover every possible variation of the term Web site, often side by side on the same page.

Is it Web site, Website, website or web site? This is one case, if there ever was one, where it is every linguist for himself. It is safe to say that the French-style WebSite can be ruled out. You do not need two capital letters in a single word! But what about the initial one? Traditionally, the word Web has been capitalised because it refers to the proper name, the World Wide Web, which is part of the Internet, also a proper name and also traditionally capitalised.

However, for both of these words, writers around the world seem to be growing increasingly impatient with all that fussy capitalisation. A California Webmaster (someone who designs and maintains Web sites) told me that to him, capitalising something as omnipresent as the Web is beginning to feel like capitalising a word like "Telephone". As in, "Who was that on the Phone, dear?" Of course there is a difference. The World Wide Web is a unique proper name. Telephone is simply a descriptive noun. However, does this mean that we going to have to capitalise the Web forever? Or will it reach such a level of familiarity that the capital will be dropped? To all appearances, this process has already begun.

What about the question of one word or two? By way of analogy, one of my British dictionaries lists camp site while another one says camp-site and an American one lists campsite. Would it simplify matters to make a geographical distinction? Hardly, since the Internet is inherently borderless.

For the time being, it looks like the approach to the term Web site should simply be determined by your mood and the context in which you are writing. If you want to be a little bit formal, then Web site is definitely the safest bet, grammatically speaking. If you are feeling somewhat more casual, why not try web site? Can't make up your mind? Perhaps Website is the solution. And for those occasions when you want to be truly cutting edge, avant-garde, or perhaps conceal your advancing age, just use the as-yet-unofficial neologism website and feel the exhilaration of the linguistic future.

Kate Grady