Robin Camille Davis
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Archive vs. archives, Internet vs. internet

September 09, 2011

It's been a week of learning new words and word forms! For your edification, should you not already know these differences, I present some lexical tidbits of interest:

archive vs. archives

The OED definition of archive begins: " 1. A place in which public records or other important historic documents are kept. Now only in pl." As in, we generally only say the archives.
What's confusing to me, however, is that while "the archives" is common, I often hear "an archives," as in this quote:

We use an archives to remember things after they happen.*

What?! Singular article for a plural word? Or is it a plural word? After all, the archives of a university are still only one instance of many archives. How do we distinguish the archives from the archives? On a 2008 Language Log post about chamber vs. chambers ("a chambers" is grammatically correct), a commenter named Faith remarked,

This problem crops up with the technical use of "an archives." Among librarians, archivists and historians, the term "an archives" refers specifically to the repository in which papers are housed, not generally to the papers themselves. "An archive" means a single set of papers: "An archive of committee papers." There is some drift between uses and I imagine the singular "archives" will eventually fall out of use altogether, especially as copy editors and people like that are always trying to correct it.

Hm. Okay. This makes. Sense?

Further, the SAA Glossary notes: "United States and Canadian archivists generally deprecate the use of 'archive' (without an s) as a noun to mean a collection of records ('archives'), but that form is common in other English-speaking countries. In information technology, the s-less form, 'archive', is commonly used as a verb and to describe collections of backup data." So perhaps archives is preferred sometimes because archive sounds like "an archive of blog posts."

Internet vs. internet

As in, capital-I Internet vs. lowercase-i internet. I was talking with my good friend Helen today over M&Ms and she posited that the Internet connotes global networking as a concept, where as the internet means the actual network that you're currently logged onto. I had always assumed that capital-I Internet was for people who hadn't yet accepted the internet as part of their lives, a common noun like salad or fishbowl.

As it turns out, there's a whole Wikipedia page on Internet/internet capitalization conventions. (Of course there is.) The arguments are mostly interpretations of history. ARPANET became the Internet, officially with a capital I. So perhaps we must distinguish between the Internet, what you're on, and smaller, localized internetworks. Others, like myself, argue that the internet now holds a similar place in our day as the phone or the television. It doesn't have to be a proper noun anymore.

Helen's idea of the capital-I Internet as a concept is interesting, though. I've read sentences like, "The advent of Internet has blah blah..." This may be a holdover from the early 90s, when people were asking things such as, "What is Internet?" But maybe it's also a throwback to the old literary convention of capitalizing abstract nouns like Time and Love. Does Internet belong in there? Can Internet (or anything) be both an abstract noun and a concrete noun as well?

* Steven Lubar, "Information Culture and the Archival Record.," American Archivist 62:1 (Spring 1999), p. 10–22.