An AP style change shakes things up

The Associated Press shook up the world last week. The World Wide Web, that is.

The AP, whose stylebook is ubiquitous in newsrooms real and virtual around the other www (whole wide world), has decreed that the place one visits on the World Wide Web shall henceforth be known as a “website.”

As opposed to what, many of you may be asking? A carburetor?

No, as opposed to a “Web site,” “Website,” “web-site,” or “Web-site.”

AP’s previous style was to call it a “Web site,” though all of the above uses occasionally crept in. “Web site” made more sense a very long time ago—about twenty years—when the World Wide Web was new and people were just starting to develop ways for computer users to interact with it. A word for those, um, sites had to be invented.

Under its entry—for “web site”—the Oxford English Dictionary lists the first citation from 1993, in a publication called Computer Shopper: “Alas, the WEB has just begun its development. When we checked, we found that there’s not even a single WEB site in North America, although there is a very good chance that one will exist by the time this goes to print.” Merriam-Webster traces the first use of “Web site” to 1992.

But the Web is no longer new, and, even if the World Wide Web remains a proper noun, “web” has become a common prefix—“webcam,” “webcast,” “webinar,” etc.—and it looks silly to single out “Web site” for special treatment.

The decision to go with “website” was hailed by many, including a large group of copy editors meeting in Philadelphia, though there was some disagreement in the extended discussions about it on Twitter. After all, it involves fewer keystrokes—no hitting the caps key, and no space bar.

Most dictionaries still list “Web site” as the preferred spelling, even as many include “webcam,” and it will be interesting to see how quickly they embrace the AP, or popular usage. Some style guides, including The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and The Chicago Manual of Style, still prefer the use of “Web site”—for now, at least

Why does this matter? In many ways, it doesn’t, since no reader is going to think that a “Web site” is different from a “website.” But style guides exist to encourage consistency within a publication when there’s more than one “right” way to do something. There’s only one (correct) spelling of “accommodate,” for example, but should it be “canceled” or “cancelled”? Both are correct; the decision on which to use is a style decision.

The main reason to encourage consistency is so a reader won’t stop and say, “Hey, wait, wasn’t this word spelled differently earlier?” You don’t want your readers to stop. You want them to continue reading. Then they will spend more time on what last week was your “Web site,” and is now your “website.” Though, since CJR follows the Chicago manual, you’ll continue to read this column (we hope) on its “Web site.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.