I admit I’m a grammar snob. Sue me. I’ve been this way as long as I can remember, long before I became an attorney. When I read something in which the author doesn’t know the difference between your and you’re, I instantly tune out. You’ve lost me at that point. Sure, I begin and even end sentences with prepositions, when appropriate. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with that. See William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 77–78 (4th ed. 2000). This is not even one of those rules where there’s a gray area, or room for interpretation, like the one that says the first letter of every sentence should be capitalized, along with proper nouns:
The name of a particular person (Frank Sinatra), place (Boston), or thing (Moby Dick). Proper nouns are capitalized. Common nouns name classes of people (singers), places (cities), or things (books) and are not capitalized.
Word processors and other computing devices usually detect incorrect spelling, and oftentimes capitalization errors — for years, Microsoft Word wouldn’t let you spell Internet without capitalizing it, but later versions of the software are not so picky, nor are you likely to be corrected when using all lowercase characters to spell the word on your iPhone, or Gmail. But why is that? Is it because people just don’t pay attention to such minute details anymore, or has “the Internet” lost exclusivity as the place you go online? Would you believe the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) recently issued a decision on the subject? As it turns out, the justices of our nation’s high court are paying very close attention to this, and they are split as to which usage is the correct one.
Last week, SCOTUS struck down on First Amendment grounds, a North Carolina law making it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.” That is not the interesting part, though. Although the justices were unanimous (recently sworn in Justice Gorsuch did not participate) in deciding the NC statute was unconstitutional, they were sharply divided on the reasons for striking it down, and apparently, also divided on whether “Internet” should be capitalized.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Packingham v. North Carolina, which was joined by Justices Ginbsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Kennedy reasoned the “vast democratic forums of the Internet” are “the most important places…for the exchange of views” today, leading to a conclusion that social media sites “like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter” are now “integral to the fabric of our modern society and culture.”
Social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are now integral to the fabric of our modern society and culture.
In a concurring opinion joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito (aka the rudest justice) called: “the internet a powerful tool for the would-be child abuser.” But the reason SCOTUS’s most conservative justices sided with the majority, was that the NC law didn’t just ban Facebook and Twitter, but also sites like Amazon, the Washington Post, and WebMD. Motherboard’s Charles Duan (@charles_duan) counted 15 times Alito referred to the lower-case-internet, but also drew some comparisons with Internet usage (no pun intended) in past SCOTUS opinions.
In Dietz v. Bouldin, decided one year ago, Justice Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion, in which she also referred to the lower-case-internet. But Justice Thomas, in his dissenting opinion, said the majority didn’t properly account for “today’s world of cellphones, wireless Internet, and 24/7 news coverage.” In other words, both justices flip-flopped their usage between one year ago, and the present. Although this could seem like a petty or nit-picky thing to analyze, it has the potential to go much deeper, because the question of whether to capitalize the “Internet” turns on whether the author envisions it as a specific or singular online destination — like going to McDonald’s or Wendy’s — versus a generic location, such as a fast food restaurant.