When the (lowercase) 'i' has it

A look at how the Web is changing the language of journalism – or not.

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Once upon a time, many years ago, before there was a World Wide Web, a colleague reminded me about how a newspaper needs to be as many things to as many people as possible, even if it can't be all things to all people. Editors need to remember that sometimes people will buy a newspaper for just a single piece of information.

"Sometimes," I remember him saying, "you pick up a paper at the newsstand to check the price of a single stock."

Now I think I can top the single stock-price check. A couple of Saturdays ago, I picked up The New York Times at the supermarket just to check on whether a single letter in the headline of a story was capitalized.

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As I'd seen online at home, the Times had reported that Apple had "suffered extensive network gridlock Friday morning as many of the six million users of the original iPhone tried to upgrade to new software while the first buyers of the new iPhone 3G were trying to activate their purchases."

The headline for this article, as I saw it online, was quite straightforward: "iPhone Users Plagued by Software Problems." Note, though, that initial "i." It's lowercase, out of deference to Apple's style.

But wait a minute. It begins a sentence. Always begin a sentence with a capital letter: Isn't that just about the first rule of capitalization you ever learned, back in the day when it was a bit of a struggle just to hold one of those fat pencils in your little fingers?

Hmm, I thought. I wonder how they handled it in the print edition. Differently, I suspected.

The headline on the front page of the business section read "In Line for an iPhone, and Then Prevented From Turning It On." The copy editors followed Apple's preference and lowercased the "i" – but didn't begin the headline with it.

This may eventually change, but for now, a good way to keep your trademarked product name from beginning a sentence is to insist on writing it with a lowercase initial. Headlines are, after all, sentences, and begin with a capital letter, even though there are a few special rules and exceptions governing their style.

The lowercase headline online was (I'm guessing) the decision of some editor aware of this wiggle room for headlines, and perhaps more accepting of proper names with a lowercase initial (more accepting than I am, at least).

This is how language changes, and the Web, with its pressures for writing that is tight, short, and skimmable, is a force for change. In print, the limits are clear: Some things won't fit on the page. The situation online is subtler. It is theoretically possible to run articles that go on and on. But on an entry page (the "front page" of an online publication), space is as tight as on its ink-on-paper counterpart.

But it's worth noting that the Web headline for the story was, its first letter aside, actually more of a traditional hard-news headline than what ran in print. The print headline was more a "flavor headline." It suggested what happened but had no subject – no "doer" – or predicate verb.

By contrast "iPhone Users Plagued by Software Problems" would have made sense, grammatically at least, to a traditional green-eyeshade copy desk of a century ago. They might have had a little trouble understanding "software problems," though. They might have thought that "software problems" were what happened on a weekend when you had houseguests and you ran out of bath towels.

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