These are tough times for grammar snobs, those would-be avatars of flawless spelling and proper syntax who need look no further than a high-school friend’s Facebook posts or a family member’s text messages to find their treasured language being misused and neglected. Of course, split infinitives, dangling modifiers, and subject-verb disagreements have always appeared wherever words are uttered or keys are stroked. But on the internet, and particularly on social media, defenders of formal writing and the rules of language may feel as if they’ve become stuck in some linguistic hellscape littered with discarded stylebooks, the ashes of dictionaries, and a new species of abbreviations that’s tougher to crack than Linear B.
To these “grumbling” grammarians, the Montreal-based linguist Gretchen McCulloch says: Lighten up lol. In her new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, McCulloch challenges the idea that the rise of informal writing signals a trend toward global idiocy. Instead, she marks it as an inevitable and necessary “disruption” in the way human beings communicate. “We no longer accept that writing must be lifeless, that it can only convey our tone of voice roughly and imprecisely, or that nuanced writing is the exclusive domain of professionals,” McCulloch argues. “We’re creating new rules for typographical tone of voice. Not the kind of rules that are imposed from on high, but the kind of rules that emerge from the collective practice of a couple billion social monkeys — rules that enliven our social interactions.”
Of course, the old rules of language were broken long before people went online, and McCulloch offers that the internet concludes a process “that had begun with medieval scribes and modernist poets.” She also notes how “well-documented features” of regional and cultural dialects—such as southern American English and African American English—have influenced the language of the internet, most obviously on Twitter. But in contrast to the pre-internet age, she argues, now we are all “writers as well as readers” of informal English.
Drawing from her research and that of other linguists, McCulloch shows how creative respellings, expressive punctuation, emoji, memes, and other hallmarks of informal communication online demonstrate a sophistication that can rival even the most elegant writing. Understanding the difference between ending a sentence with one exclamation point or two, recognizing what a person is conveying when they write “dumbbb” or “sameee,” and knowing when or when not to be upset after receiving an all-caps text, McCulloch writes, “requires subtly tuned awareness of the full spectrum of the language.”
The prevalence of emoji, meanwhile, does not indicate verbal indolence or a pandemic of cuteness (though adorability is certainly part of it). Instead, McCulloch writes, emoji represent a “demand that our writing … be capable of fully expressing what we want to say and, most crucially, how we’re saying it.” She even implies that William Shakespeare, whose work in part depends on the gesticulating of actors, would have been fine with the “digital embodiment” of mental states and intentions in emoji.
All this informality may also be making people smarter, McCulloch suggests. In any case, it doesn’t appear to be making anyone dumber. “Several studies show that people who use a lot of internet abbreviations perform, at worst, just as well on spelling tests, formal essays, and other measures of literacy as people who never use abbreviations — and sometimes even better,” the author writes.
Twitter has been especially good at sharpening its users’ communication skills, McCulloch finds. Because Twitter users are more likely to interact with people they don’t know outside the internet (versus Facebook, where exchanges take place largely among friends and family), linguistic innovations—hashtags, @mentions, new words, and abbreviations — are more abundant on the site. McCulloch credits improvements in her own writing style to Twitter’s 280-character limit and the way it forces users “to structure their thoughts into concise, pithy statements.”
McCulloch doesn’t spend much time on how these innovations have been used to sow division and to spread hate speech, though she does acknowledge how memes were employed to make “abhorrent beliefs look appealingly ironic” during the 2016 election campaign. Given her profession, McCulloch is much more interested in the positives that have come from the popularization of informal writing. “As a linguist,” she writes, “what compels me are the parts of language that we don’t even know we’re so good at, the patterns that emerge spontaneously, when we aren’t really thinking about them.”
As for those dug-in, intransigent standard-bearers of formal writing who still flinch every time they encounter a face-palm emoji or the sarcasm tilde (~), McCulloch extends sympathy and an olive branch. She also suggests that those fluent in internet English should go easy on themselves and try to exorcise “the ghosts of misguided grammarians” who left “us with a vague sense of unease at the whole prospect of the written word.”
With Because Internet, McCulloch is offering “a snapshot of a particular moment in time and how we got that way, not a claim to correctness or immortality.” And she calls for humility from those who are fluent in internet language and culture. “We don’t create truly successful communication by ‘winning’ at conversational norms,” she writes, “whether that’s by convincing someone to omit all periods in text messages for fear of being taken as angry, or to answer all landline telephones after precisely two rings. We create successful communication when all parties help each other win.”
After all, as McCulloch points out, “the only languages that stay unchanging are the dead ones.”