OMG! How The Internet Changed The Way You Write
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Ms Gretchen McCulloch. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House
We might live in an era of hyperbole, but it is difficult to overstate the impact the internet has had on the way we write. Not since the introduction of movable type by Mr Johannes Gutenberg in 1439 has a shift in technology taken such a hold of the English language. The original printing revolution didn’t truly get into its stride until the 18th century, but advent of the internet has influenced almost every aspect of human life remarkably quickly.
“Over a few short years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet became mainstream,” says Ms Gretchen McCulloch in her book Because Internet, which explores how the digital world has transformed our mother tongue. “Internet access was no longer exclusive to tech companies, universities and the homes of a few geeky people.” Assuming you’re old enough to remember the screech of a dial-up modem, you’ll know what we’re talking about.
If the original printing press eventually brought with it the introduction of dictionaries and the standardisation of language, controlled by a relative few, Ms McCulloch notes that, in the age of social media, the evolution of language is far more democratic, led by, as she puts it, “normal people.” In other words, anyone with access to the internet.
Not everyone can keep up. “As with any period of tremendous disruption, the explosion of informal writing is changing the way we communicate,” she says. “The norms that we worked out for books and newspapers don’t work so well for texts and chats and posts.”
So, while the team at MR PORTER tend to adhere to the rules and code of the dictionary (Collins, since you ask), as an e-commerce site, we’ve been around the internet a few times. Here are three interesting trends taken from Ms McCulloch’s old-school physical book, which, in tribute to these confusing times, we read in PDF form.
The internet is making us more civilised, not less
Despite what you might think if you’ve seen Mr Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, Ms McCulloch argues that the internet is making our language more polite. Part of this is down to our collectively improved typing skills (you can thank the instant messenger service of your choice for this). “As we’ve become better typists, we’ve also increased our ability to produce and appreciate the nuances of informal written language that allow us to be kind, humorous or polite online,” says Ms McCulloch.
Evidence for this, she says, is today’s catch-all deployment of “lol”, which has evolved beyond its original remit as shorthand for “laugh out loud” to take on the “function of laughter as a social lubricant, rather than its purely humorous function”. Notice also that, in most cases, the acronym now appears in lowercase form – another modification in the social norms of typed language. All caps is generally considered too shouty these days.
Punctuation has a point to make
The MR PORTER team are not noted for their liberal use of exclamation marks in features. It’s not that we don’t have feelings, it’s just that we try not to get too ruffled. As it turns out, Ms McCulloch thinks we’re wrong. Or not altogether down with the kids, at least. “The exclamation mark is frequently repurposed to indicate warmth or sincerity, rather than just excitement,” she writes, referencing a 2006 study that showed that only 9.5 per cent of screamers in emails were used to indicate excitement. More often, an exclamation mark was used to express friendliness (32 per cent) or to emphasise a statement of fact (29.5 per cent).
Use of the full stop, meanwhile, has become more problematic. In short, it can appear a bit, well, short. “The passive-aggressive potential of the single period started being reported in think pieces in 2013,” says Ms McCulloch. Research shows a swing towards the ellipsis or no punctuation at all in text messages of 17 characters or fewer.
Crowdsourcing spelling can have some surprising results
Rather than rely on formal dictionaries, many websites turn to their users to shape their own style guides. “Wikipedia, whose slogan is ‘the free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit’, has been very effective at combating obvious vandalism with dedicated volunteer editors, but faces more subtle problems of bias in what it covers, because the volunteer editors it attracts are disproportionately male, well-off and English speaking, and they tend to edit topics they’re already interested in,” says Ms McCulloch. “Google Docs has a spellcheck that draws on internet data, sometimes with surprising results. Once, to my great joy, it proffered a more common spelling of ‘Ronbledore’ (an obscure Harry Potter fan theory that Ron Weasley is actually a time-travelling Dumbledore). Other times, it has persisted in suggesting the closed spelling ‘alot’ over the open [ahem, correct] spelling ‘a lot’.”