Writing for websites is interesting: it forces you to think about the way the English language is changing.

Of course, English is renowned for being a language that’s always evolving. It’s a great strength of English. Words start out in one way, and, a few years down the line, they’ve morphed into something that’s either spelt differently or perhaps even means something different.

That’s how we get words such as ‘breakfast’ – the meal that ‘breaks the fast of the night’. Or even ‘today’ instead of ‘to day’. Or perhaps more interesting word origins such as ‘chairman’ – today, it’s the head of a company, but in the 1700s it simply meant the head of the house, since a table was then called a board and the one in charge of the house sat at the end.

Today, we have the rapid adoption of some new terms – terms usually based on technology. The spelling of these words can often be hotly debated, despite the rules of English usually pointing to a clearly defined spelling. (Yes, some people even contest that the English language has ‘rules’ but it does, just like any other language. But those rules can change too.)

I’m thinking in particular about words such as website/Web site and email/e-mail. I’d pretty much always taken the stance that the best way to spell these things is the right way, but my view is – like English – shifting somewhat.

Let’s look at the ‘right way’ first, and then why it might be a good idea to deviate from these.

  • Web site should really be two words, with a capital W always. This is because grammatically, it’s just like a ‘building site’ but it’s a site on the World Wide Web, which is a proper noun, even when shortened to Web.
  • E-mail is a compound common noun, made from two words, in the same way that t-bone, t-shirt and x-ray are (you wouldn’t normally write tbone).

Of course, plenty of people write website and email, but it’s when you do this that the flaw in your thinking is exposed, once you write similar words.

  • If you write email, how will you write eeconomy? Yep, it looks daft, so you’ll almost certainly write e-economy or perhaps you’ll go wild and write eEconomy just to get over the clash of having an e next to an e.
  • If you write website, how will you write buildingsite or web design? If we demote website to being a single word common noun, we’re probably not going to change how we spell building site, but we might have to think about changing anything that refers to the Web.

So, if it’s clear-cut, what’s the problem? The problems are twofold: people and search engines.

A quick search on Google reveals more entries for website’ (1,510,000,000) than for Web site (434,000,000). This tells us two things. First, that ‘website’ is how the majority of the English-speaking world refers to a Web site. Second, that more people are likely to be searching for ‘website’ than for ‘Web site’. You can see this confirmed, if you do a search for ‘web site designer’ with Google coming back with a helpful ‘did you mean: website designer in the same way that it would if you’d misspelt a word.

So, Web site it may be, but that usage is both fading and less popular than website. I have a clear choice: shall I take the moral high ground, stand firm and hold back the tide, or shall I go with the flow – knowing that, statistically, more people will be searching for ‘website’ than ‘Web site’ and that website is by far the most dominant spelling.

A few years ago, a change of spelling could have taken decades or more. But these days, some spellings will change faster.

Yes, my job as a copywriter is to write correctly, but it is mainly to communicate clearly. I’m not writing to win awards, but to sell products, so my English will be looser than that of a novelist anyway. If people stumble over what I write, it slows them down, means that they may not get the message – and that is a bad thing.If they are searching for what I do, but using a different terminology, then that is a terrible thing.

So, I’ve changed my standard from ‘Web site’ (two words, proper noun) to ‘website’ (one word, common noun). Hey, I’m not in charge of English, I just use it to earn a living.

Yes, that does introduce issues, but I’ll have to live with that – Web will be a proper noun, and it does create an inconsistency, but I’d rather be a pragmatist that communicates clearly and is found on Google than a perfectionist.

Of course, this did give me a practical problem – what to do on my website (sic). I decided to bite the bullet and change all the references from ‘Web site’ to ‘website’.

I’m afraid I’m sticking with e-mail though. I can’t currently live with the inconsistencies that arise when you go with ‘eMail’ or ‘email’. (I’ve seen e-learning companies go with ‘eLearning’ and then get stuck with what to do with ‘learning’ and even what to do when ‘eLearning’ starts a sentence – ELearning anyone?) and that’s not for me. But I reserve the right to change.

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