Wednesday, March 3, 2010

e-Commerce, E-Commerce or ... ?? Not so easy to answer

We know that AP style says it's correct to write e-commerce with a hyphen and little "e." But what about in the headline of a press release?

My vote is for E-Commerce or e-commerce, but not e-Commerce or E-commerce, though I could be talked into any of the four, given the right argument.

If you are a PR person on deadline and want an answer without an explanation, I recommend that you go with E-Commerce. You can come back to read the rest of this later.

Here's what makes this a tough call: There are no AP rules on headlines.

The Associated Press, in its pre-Internet existence, didn't use headlines at all, and newspapers across the U.S. differ in their headline styles. If we look at actual practice on Web sites, we find that The AP now capitalizes *only* the first letter of a headline and that BusinessWire -- a distributor of press releases and a respected industry standard-setter -- usually capitalizes all the words in a headline, with the exception of articles (a, an, the), prepositions (from, under, with, to, by, in) and conjunctions (and).

Capitalize prepositions of four letters or more?

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal take it a step further. They use mostly caps but lowercase articles, conjunctions and prepositions of three words or fewer. So they capitalize the prepositions from, with and across but lowercase for, to and in.

Press releases usually don't apply the three-words-or-less rule. Most appear to do it the way BusinessWire does it. Scanning the news section of Business Wire's Web site, I found more incidences of E-Commerce than e-commerce or e-Commerce, but I did find all three. Not surprisingly, I didn't find E-commerce.

Building a "right-brained" case for e-Commerce

Although I said earlier in this post that I don't prefer e-Commerce, the right-brained part of me likes it best because it *feels* like it carries the intended flavor of the little "e," which I think of as Silicon Valley's casual tossing aside of convention as it reinvents all of our lives for the better. For me, the little "e" means electronic everything, bleeps of light -- as I envision it -- slicing through the physical clutter that used to cordon people off from one another.

But that's subjective, and no one pays me to be subjective.

Apply the AP rule on "titles" to "headlines"

The more complicated NYT/WSJ rule does in fact match AP style if you decide to interpolate. If you treat "headlines" as "titles," you'll find that the rule is to capitalize prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters.

Most people don't do this. Most people don't even know where in the stylebook to look up titles. (Look under "composition titles," not "titles." The former lists treatment of plays, songs, lectures and television shows. The latter deals with job titles, mostly.)

Orgs that capitalize only the first word in a headline, thereby avoiding the question altogether:
  • San Jose Mercury News
  • Boston Herald
  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • The Associated Press online
Orgs that use all caps or mostly caps for headlines, with varying exceptions:
  • The New York Times
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Wired
  • InfoWeek
  • CIO
  • BusinessWire
The question of E-C, e-c, E-c or e-C is a toss-up, in my opinion. It depends on the other style choices your company has made.

For example, if you have a company name or product division that drops the hyphen (eBay or eBusiness Solutions), you may want to go that route for eBook and eCommerce as well, though I bet you'll balk at eMail.

If E-Commerce is a proper noun in your company's case (like Spain, Sally and Kleenex), then I'd suggest E-C.

The easy way out: Only capitalize the first letter in headlines

To make life easiest of all, I suggest companies go the way of The AP and capitalize only the first letter of a headline. Then you can use e-commerce with nary a second thought.

The PR industry adopted AP style as its own standard for good reason -- 98 percent of U.S. newspapers follow AP style. This means most people either know it or have easy access to it. So a freelance writer in Pennsylvania can turn in easy-to-edit copy on deadline to a corporation in Arizona, without a lot of wasted conversation about nit-picky style details.

Stop quibbling and get back to work

Why quibble about capitalization and hyphens when you could be doing something that actually advances your company's business objectives? Why insist on a unique corporate style that you will have to re-visit, defend and teach time and time again forever into the future?

Do more important things instead.

Even as print declines in favor of digital reading, the AP standard is still a good one. It's voice-neutral -- that is, it works for any kind of tone or aesthetic. It's neither formal nor informal. And no other single organization has the momentum, reputation or reach to efficiently replace it.