Daily Archives: October 5, 2008

The problem with Internet English

The problem with Internet English


Kenneth Burchfiel

I have always been one of those hopelessly traditional people that capitalizes their text messages, makes sure to use apostrophes correctly when writing an e-mail and says “whom” in message boards. That is my confession: I’m behind the times enough that I still care about mechanics on the world wide web, though I do slip up from time to time. (This article, I’m sure, will have its share of errors.)

It is as if there exists an alternate form of language online, one I’d like to call “Internet English.” Open up a web browser, and all of a sudden, capitalization and punctuation becomes irrelevant. “Your wrong about they’re opinion” is just as fitting a rebuttal as is “You’re wrong about their opinion.” Another strange convention: Caps Lock has now become the standard means with which to make an argument.

It would be quite simple to attack those committing such errors and say that they don’t know how to write. And yet, they do know how to write. The people who e-mail you NOTES THAT LOOK LIKE THIS aren’t bad writers, necessarily; they just figure that mechanics don’t carry as much weight online as they do on paper.

It’s that perception that I take issue with.

There’s always been a battle of sorts between the “grammar hounds” and the “anything goes” writing schools. One says that dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s is imperative; the other says that what you write is more important than the exact form of your words.

I used to consider myself a full-blooded member of the former group. What did it matter if I had missed a semicolon here or there? My idea was there; my evidence was there; the story was complete.

That was when the internet started to develop. The more I surfed the web, the more I tended to discriminate based on mechanics. If a company advertised that their product would “get u in shape 4 school,” I tended to pay it little attention. If an e-mail said that “YOU HAVE JUST WON A $14,000,000 USD IN THE NAIROBI NATIONAL LOTTRY,” I would quickly delete it and move on. Slowly, I was becoming the kind of grammar policeman that I had used to detest.

Internet English arose out of a simple truth: online, we tend to pay less attention to how we write. Unfortunately, as I came to realize, we still pay close attention to how others write on the internet. Though most of us wouldn’t stress over accidentally posting “I liek that” instead of ‘I like that” on Youtube, we still turn up our noses when that mistake is made by someone else. That’s the danger with writing online; although one’s writing might get sloppier, the same standards for grammar and mechanics hold on the internet as they do in a book or a newspaper.

Is it wrong of me to ignore someone’s writing when it is riddled with mechanical errors? Should I be chastised for skipping over a one-paragraph, all-caps rant? Perhaps. But the simple truth is that grammar still makes a difference on the internet, if only because readers are still just as sensitive to errors and slipups made on the web.

Everyone has the right to use “Internet English” to the fullest. But don’t fault me if, looking through a message board or an online petition, I pay less attention to passages that pay no attention to grammar. It’s a condition I was born with.


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