Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Grammar in the Online World

Grammar. It can intimidate us or inspire us--but usually it calls up images of learning about dangling participles, subject-verb agreement, or passive versus active voice. In other words, it can either put people to sleep or terrify them, inspire a yawn or inspire a challenge. For some, learning grammar is like learning to walk; it is an effortless process, albeit a little tedious. For others, it is a constant struggle or a non-issue; they try and try or just give up or don't bother.

Something about the nature of the online world, however, seems to create an environment where grammar is largely ignored. Instead of clear and concise written communication, we have a bastardized form of English where words are abbreviated, capitalization used irregularly (if at all), and punctuation largely ignored. Take, for example, a post on my other blog:

hey just lookin at random sites and i noticed that u like 2 listen to kansas the band well just thought i would tell u that my moms cuz was in the band and my back neighbor too my back neighbor is kerry livegren and my mom cuz i don't know his name lol but ya well cmb

I almost vomited when I read this atrocity. Is it one sentence or two? What is this teenager's point? And since when does the number two ("2") equal "to"? Weren't we drilled in the difference between "two" and "to" from grade school? How about "cuz" for both "cousin" and "because?" I would also like to know when "welcome" could dissolve into "well cmb" and where the hell that "b" came from? Does she have a cold?

Perhaps I'm overly cruel to the ignorant child, but at the same time, we've created an environment where such language is permissible, where the integrity of English is challenged by the widespread use of unclear and abbreviated words. It reflects the speaker's lack of thought in an age of increasing thoughtlessness in both written and oral communication. Sure, language is a living thing and is subject to change, but I worry that it reflects something more than innovation: it reflects a laziness. People are simply too lazy to write out full words (even when it takes the same amount of time to type "well cmb" as "welcome").

Punctuation matters, folks, as does capitalization. Meaning is changed by an incorrect case (there is a difference between Charlie Horse and charlie horse. Do you mean a person or a leg cramp?) And punctuation easily changes meaning as well, as in the famous passage from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Quince says:

If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come as minding to contest you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are at hand and by their
You shall know all that you are like to know.

Now if the punctuation had been properly placed, this passage would mean exactly the opposite of what it says. Instead of saying that they mean to offend with good will, it would instead be a polite introduction. Here's the modified version, the same words, different punctuation: "If we offend, it is with our good will that you should think we come not to offend. But with good will to show our simple skill that is the true beginning of our end. Consider then we come, but in despite we do not come as minding to contest you. Our true intent is all for your delight. We are not here that you should here repent you. The actors are at hand and by their show you shall know all that you are like to know."

Totally different, right?

And to close this post that approaches verbosity, I challenge you all to consider your written speech. It pains me to see otherwise intelligent people shutting down their minds when their hands touch the clicky keys. White, in The Elements of Style (a handy little writing guide), warns of the lure of the exilaration typing can lead to, usually creating wordy, unnecessary sentences. I shall warn of another sort of lure, the lure of allowing expedience and ease of communication prevent clear, thoughtful writing.


Amanda said...

I would argue that the frustration you are running into is not caused by poor language, but rather a new language. You would clearly prefer the internet be a written medium, but my research has proven that it simply isn't. The internet has the ability to display both written and oral pieces, but online communication is a hybrid of the two. One of the many reasons why this form of communication has yet to be recognized as separate is because it does not yet have a set of rules. This also makes it difficult to learn. The comment that was left for you could easily be seen as an example of who has not yet perfected the new language. Most of the English we know was learned before elementary school. We already knew the vast majority of grammar rules. What we learned in school was terminology for the rules, how to rank or prioritize the rules, and how to apply them to complex situations. The person who left that message clearly has vocabulary but lacks a grasp on the rules of the language. Just like mastery of the English language, proving your skill at using this online language can earn you online social status. For example you can tell the age of the poster by how strong the text messaging influence is in what they write.

Now as an English/Literature person, I’m going to assume that you do not like this new language and would prefer that formal written English be used instead (and I’m mainly going to assume this just so I can keep talking.) The purpose of this language is to add a human touch to a body-less, face-less, and voice-less environment. This language is rooted in abbreviations and phonetic spelling. A fantastic example of this is imho which is an abbreviation for In My Honest Opinion. I doubt that I’ve ever used the phrase ‘in my honest opinion,’ but imho in a post provides my writing with a tone that is less confrontational and a bit more expressive than merely stating my opinion. Now I know that literature is full of examples of how to use the English language to manipulate tone and we shouldn’t need a new language to accomplish that, but you and I have both seen and accepted blatantly broken language rules for the purpose of self-expression and art. Never before have so many people been striving to express themselves through written word. I’m not talking about expressing their meaning or their ideas or even telling their stories, but rather expressing themselves through the way they communicate.

All that said, there is still a time and a place for everything, and there are definitely times when this online communication is inappropriate even if you’re using the internet as a medium.

Donna B. said...

Keep fighting the good fight, Sister Jenn. Also omg u totally rox well ok c ya!