The Internet. The end of English as we know it? (2)

Did you watch the “English 3.0” video examining the question: is the Internet having a detrimental effect on English and on “standards”? Here are my thoughts on the question.

Social media = online conversation

Much of the “bad writing” we see online is really just a form of conversation. People writing on Facebook, Twitter and other social sites are chatting with friends and family. They didn’t write so much before social media arrived, and they certainly weren’t published. Their spelling and grammar, if shaky now, were probably just as shaky before they started posting on social sites. Rather than cause a decline, the Internet has simply made spelling mistakes and misplaced apostrophes visible, and to lots more people.

Texts, tweets and… post-cards

There’s nothing inherently bad about text- or Twitter-speak. Texts and tweets are inventive and fun and, in the case of tweets, the discipline of conveying your thoughts in 140 characters is surely a good exercise in concision.

In the early 20th century, before telephones were commonplace and with 4 or more postal deliveries a day, people used post-cards to send short messages. You could send a card in the morning arranging to meet a friend later that same day – the equivalent of today’s text message. Post-cards were great for quick, impromptu communication – and most likely contained plenty of abbreviations, spelling mistakes and grammar errors. Just like texts.

In her “Txting is for people who can’t spell, write? Wrong” post for The Guardian newspaper’s Mind Your Language blog, Caroline Tagg gives the following example, taken from a post-card written in 1907: “I arrived all right about 4 oclock hope you are all right grand wether”. That could easily be a text from 2014, don’t you think?

The important thing is to know when text-speak is appropriate and when it’s not, and when it’s OK for your writing to contain the odd wrongly spelled word. In other words, to know which form of language to use in which situation. We all switch from formal to informal speech and writing (using our “posh” voice when we’re on the phone to business contacts, for example). Maybe we should give young people the credit for knowing how to do that, too.

“Children love language, writing and wordplay”

According to Fiona McPherson, the lexicographer featured in Joe Gibson’s film, there’s no evidence that children’s formal writing has been adversely affected by “social-speak”. Caroline Tagg’s blog post reaches a similar conclusion:

Children are probably writing more than ever before, and they are doing so freely and through their own choice, developing their writing skills through play

For some heartening examples of great writing by children and young people, also check out Elli Narewska’s Guardian post: “Here is the news: children love language, writing and wordplay“.

Lastly, let’s not forget that most of what’s written in social media sites is ephemeral. Tweets and Facebook up-dates may well still be lurking on the web years from now, but they represent a fleeting moment. They aren’t meant to be set in stone. Who’ll be reading those posts 10 years from now? Will it matter if they contain spelling mistakes?

Other posts you might like

Serendipity and the scents of war 

A translation sin of omission

Punctuation botheration (as resolved by Victor Borge)

By Marian Dougan

2 Responses

  1. I totally agree with you, Marian. No need to tear our clothes and cover our heads with ashes over language being degraded because of textspeak (or should I rather say ‘textwrite’?). The key is, as you rightly pointed out, and will always be, ‘register’. The same young people who are texting away like crazy today and using all those LOLs, OMGs and what have you, will be holding positions as bank presidents, science researchers, CEOs, etc., and will certainly write as they will have been taught in the course of their studies, their spelling and style none the worse for having texted in their teens (or continuing to text privately to friends and family).
    Best regards and have a super weekend.

  2. I also agree with the points you make, Marian, and that is supported by social linguistics. Most people know when to use a specific kind of language, or register, as mentioned by Nélida.

    Apart from that, languages change, and they always will. There’s nothing we can do to stop that. Young people like to create new words, use existing words with new meanings, change spelling, etc., and all of that is part of their group identity and culture.

    Thank you for the interesting discussion!

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