DOT-COM STYLE DRIVES EDITORS CRAZY AP Stylebook Begins To Address Web Lexicon

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By: Kevin Featherly

Since the Internet has become a ubiquitous part of the culture, editors and copy desks have struggled with the sometimes bizarre language of the dot-com world. What do we do with that pesky exclamation mark in the name of one of the Web’s leading companies? Do we capitalize ?Internet?? What about the abbreviated ?Net??

The Associated Press, keeper of the consistent-
style flame in the newspaper industry, is beginning to address these issues. ?Our feedback from editors, generally, is for straightforward information,? said Norm Goldstein, the editor who oversees all style changes to the AP Stylebook and Libel Manual, the industry’s style bible.

Some common queries from editors: ?Please advise the correct AP style for URLs?? Or, ?We feel we should be putting full addresses with the ‘http://’ prefix and not just ‘www.whatever.com.’ Your opinion?’?

But feedback is not always questioning in nature. Sometimes, it’s critical. ?We do get some that disagree – to put it mildly – with some of the style choices we’ve made,? Goldstein said.

One concerned writer sent Goldstein this message: ?I’m sorry, but I really must protest your decision to represent ‘websites’ as ‘Web sites.’ Take a look at the two side-by-side: website/Web site. Web site; ungainly, lopsided, ugly! Website; compact, efficient, attractive.?

e-mail or E-mail?

Most news editors, perhaps, are not so passionate. But writing for and about the Internet is introducing a whole new field of style-consistency issues, many of them unresolved, at least to the satisfaction of some editors.

Are you supposed to hyphenate ?e-mail?? Do you have to write ?www? every time you refer to something like Priceline.com? Does the term ?URL? pass on first reference? And what about all of those wacky dot-com company names? How do handle a name like ?AbramsomEhrlichManes,? a name obviously devised to look good in a URL? Can print readers make sense of this?

The AP has answered some dot-com questions. For instance, ?HTTP? (hypertext transfer protocol) is fine on first reference. The term ?search engine? is two words, lowercase spelling. You can use ?bbb,? short for bulletin-board system, without the periods.

But AP has not tackled many other virtual-
sphere questions, especially corporate names, though it has resolved usage of names such as IBM, DuPont and Land-Rover in the bricks-and-
mortar world. ?We haven’t faced this issue head-on as yet,? Goldstein acknowledges. So there’s no guidance on Yahoo!, E*TRADE, or eBay.

This lack of guidance is particularly vexing to business newspapers. One of those is the Washington Business Journal, a weekly publication in the nation’s capitol, where Editor Beth Zacharias said her staffers have taken pains to seek out a consistent style plan that they can adhere to. In addition to AP, they’ve looked for counsel by comparing their style ideas against policies followed by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
?But that’s not helping, either,? Zacharias said. ?Because they’re all doing something different. It would be nice for us to at least have a rhyme or reason for what we do. That way, when an angry CEO calls, we can say, ‘Gosh, Mr. Dot Com, I know your 17-letter company name is all capitals, but we can’t run it that way in our paper.’?

While non-Internet companies have come up with some doozies (think PricewaterhouseCoopers), the Web seems to inspire truly wacky words. The Web is navigated using lower-case letters, and a new language has evolved from cyberspace where numbers substitute for letters or words; derivative spellings are common. Companies born of this ethereal world follow in this new lingual tradition. Dot-coms need hip names that will stand out – and stand out quickly.

How does a newspaper handle eBay or barnesandnoble.com when they begin a sentence or headline? ?We all agree that the reader is who we serve,? Zacharias said. ?The question becomes, at what point does it simply become jarring to the reader? Obviously, in a marketing sense it’s important for a company to stand out. But is that our responsibility? And if not, what is our responsibility? And where do we draw the line??

AP’s Goldstein said there have been a few concrete decisions made regarding unusual company names. ?We have been, for example, using ‘eBay’ and ‘iMac’ and ‘PricewaterhouseCoopers,’? he said. ?But generally we’ll go with the company preference, unless it’s really bizarre.?

Bob Steenson, news editor at the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette, said his paper’s philosophy is that companies can call themselves anything the want. He points to a local Internet company with a particularly strange mix of upper- and lowercase letters in its logo – NetConX. ?If that’s what they want to be called, we go ahead and use it,? he said.

Steenson said a bigger problem is when a Web address won’t fit in one column and ends up being hyphenated. ?Then you’re never sure that the readers know that the hyphen isn’t part of the Web address,? he said.

Others haven’t had problems with dot-com style. At the Minneapolis Star Tribune, for instance, the paper’s copy editor and style committee chair John Addington hasn’t seen the issue come up much. ?About the only thing that I have dealt with is the style for ‘e-mail,’? he said. ?We have a lowercase ‘e’ and the hyphen. We’d do that for a headline, too, unless of course it is the first letter of a headline, which we always (capitalize).?
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Kevin Featherly (kfeatherly@uswest.net) is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities of Minnesota




(c) Copyright 1999, Editor & Publisher

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