Adventures in online punctuation (and other grammatical quirks)

March 31, 2020

Whenever my written English falls below a certain standard, red and green wavy lines magically appear to tell me where my deficiencies lie.

Sometimes I’m grateful for the advice, but at other times I bristle. The computer might think that it knows best, but hey – maybe I done got it wrong on purpose? Oh, here we go again: “The past participle verb ‘done’ has been used without an auxiliary verb,” says my vigilant automated assistant, noticing straight away that something is grammatically “up”. But its haughty, zero tolerance approach rubs me up the wrong way.

So I done got it wrong? Whatever.

I done had an omelette. I done went to the launderette. Putting the word ‘done’ before the past tense of a verb makes me happy for reasons I can’t fully explain. I do it a lot, partly for my own pleasure, partly in the hope that it’s appreciated by other people who like the way language can be pulled and pushed into ridiculous shapes.

But aside from the mild amusement this kind of thing brings about, we also do it to give our sentences meaning and colour that simply can’t be conveyed by “proper” English, Standard English, English as a computer understands it. Riding roughshod and carefree over the oh-so- strict rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar can often help us to communicate more effectively, with verve, wit and flair.

You’ll find no shortage of examples on the internet, where messaging services, online forums and social media are littered with millions of beautiful and perfectly intentional grammatical boobs. We live in a wonderful world where the word ZOMG once gained currency as an expression of mock surprise (“oh my god”) simply because people would accidentally hit the Z rather than the SHIFT key before typing “OMG”. This common mistake led to ironic imitation, which in turn led to ZOMG being quietly incorporated, almost by necessity, into a language which has never had any officially approved way of denoting sarcasm.

Over the years, a number of linguists have tried to address this omission with various symbols – the reversed question mark, the inverted exclamation mark — but nothing works better than good, honest rule breaking: excessive capitalisation, shoehorned “quotation marks” or deliberately incorrect spelling.

Not even the definite article, the most common word in the English language, can escape being manhandled by people trying to express themselves. “TEH can be used in front of a verb in a novel form of gerund,” Wikipedia informs us, “and has the ability to turn nearly any word into an intensified noun… Thus, the phrase “this sucks” can be converted into “this is teh suck.”

(My computer is underlining the word “teh”. I’m ignoring it. It feels good.)

Scholars are split on this stuff. While some English professors might dismiss the “bleak, bald, sad shorthand”; of online communication, others believe that our grammatical tinkering is ushering in a new era of experimentation and enhanced clarity.

In 2009, Andrea Lunsford, an English professor at Stanford University, analysed thousands of pieces of writing by college students over a period of five years – essays, emails, online chats – and concluded that we were undergoing a literary revolution “the like of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization”.

New shades of meaning

The students were becoming more skilled, she believed, at tailoring messages to their audience and the various media they were using. Rather than despoiling language, they were becoming better at communicating and better understood. And if that process happened to fracture some of the rules of English grammar and punctuation, well, is that such a bad thing?

Back in 1989, the linguist Michael Halliday outlined two contrasting approaches to punctuation: you either do it according to grammar, or according to phonology. In other words, either a syntactic approach, where you stick to the rules as laid out in the grammar textbooks, or the prosodic, where your punctuation is guided by the way the words sound when read aloud.

In the last thirty years, however, online communication has thrown up a third, more playful method, where punctuation (or a lack of it) is used to create whole new shades of meaning. It’s not all intentional, of course. The breathless, punctuation-free message we receive from someone texting while trying to catch a train is a consequence of stress, while the “can’t be bothered to punctuate” tweet of the hyper-cool millennial is constructed to convey just the right amount of nonchalance. They look very similar, and neither contain any full stops, but for very different reasons.

The changing role of the full stop, or period, has been lamented in the media on several occasions, with writers proclaiming “the death of the full stop” and wondering how society could possibly cope with the fall out.

The answer, of course, is “just fine”. Freed of the obligation to use them at the end of every sentence, we have a bit of fun with them instead, deploying them to sound mildly annoyed (“See you this evening” vs “See you this evening.”) or leaving them out to add a bit of levity or impatience (“What shall we have for dinner?” vs “What shall we have for dinner”).

In the Washington Post in 2015, writer Rachel Feltman pointed out that the full stop is no longer the correct way to end a sentence, but “an act of psychological warfare against your friends.” Another writer, Ben Crair, had his own take on the subtleties of 21st century comms: “You could drive yourself insane,” he said, “trying to decode the hidden messages in other people’s punctuation.” He’s right. The grammatical style of messages can convey just as much information as the content; anyone who has studied the precise number of kisses appended to messages between themselves and a person they’re dating will know exactly what Crair is talking about.

Full stop. Or not.

With full stops wilfully discarded and sentences butting up against each other with insouciant glee, capital letters have a range of exciting alternative roles to perform, including SHOUTING IN ANGER or Sarcastic Indication That Something Is Of Great Importance.

Fortunately, we’ve managed to largely escape THE ERA WHEN PEOPLE NEW TO COMPUTERS WOULD TYPE MESSAGES THAT RESEMBLED A TELEGRAM; these days it’s more common for people not to use capitals at all. Although those dedicated to the lower-case cause can often find themselves battling against auto-correct software which might insist that you call Stuart “Stuart”, even if you would rather keep Stuart in his place by calling him “stuart”.

The comma has also undergone a purging. Back in 2014, a professor of English at Columbia University, John McWhorter, suggested that the removal of commas would result in “so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all,” but it’s not as if we needed any encouragement. We seized this opportunity with our thumbs and forefingers. “i have a couple of mp3s left in my collection that I downloaded in my first semester at uni in 1999 and I still kind of prefer them over good copies for weird memory evocation even though they are empirically less good to listen to” tweeted a friend of mine the other evening, abandoning the comma and giving readers the opportunity to insert their own pauses into the flow, if that’s what they felt like doing.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch, who has a book out about the way we use language on the internet, explored in a 2015 article how a free-flowing absence of punctuation can communicate a “disingenuous deadpan snark” (e.g. “I already know the answer to this question but I’m just going to say it anyway,” or “I might be hoping you’ll laugh, but I’m definitely not asking you for it.”)

Sentences can be very easily imbued with comedic, lower- case deadpanism (“the saddest part about self driving cars will be all the times people die mid trip and then ur dinner guests or pizza guy will arrive dead” – @bourgeoisalien), and you see writers doing it on the internet all the time. They know where full stops, commas and capitals should go, but choose to leave them out, the linguistic equivalent of a shrug or a raised eyebrow.

Grammar in the age of the internet

We’re evidently not the first to play with grammar in a reckless fashion. James Joyce or E. E. Cummings would have spurned the grammatical assistance offered by Microsoft Word by heading straight for Preferences and turning off the wavy lines. But the informal nature of online communication has brought about a linguistic freedom that constantly throws up new stylistic quirks.

HTML tags are a geeky but widely understood way of annotating messages with subtext , and whole theses could be written (and probably have been) about emoticons and emoji.

Then! We! Have! Exclamation! Marks! (or, God help us, clap emojis) Between! Every! Word!

Abbreviations are endemic; “thx” is a neat space saver, sure, but something like “o rly?” successfully conveys an exasperation that “oh really?” could never hope to achieve.

And these things take on new meaning over the course of their lifespan; in the late 1990s on Usenet, the abbreviation HTH HAND (hope that helps, have a nice day) eventually came loaded with so much withering sarcasm that you feared being on the end of it.

We have technology to thank for these new idiosyncrasies. Tiny, screen-based keyboards encourage a certain grammatical minimalism, but at the same time emoji and their kin have expanded our palette of expression in ways that could never have been foreseen.

The imaginative linguistic leaps we make whenever a new technology is dumped in our lap keep us one step ahead of the computers that enable them; computers are designed to remember the rules, and we’re designed to break them.

“Language is about having a way to communicate that suits your purpose,” said Professor Louise Ravelli from the University of New South Wales in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald back in 2014. “People will find a way to express themselves regardless of whether they are technically correct. Communication is about being functional. If someone can’t make themselves understood they will work at it until they are understood.”

In that sense, the imposition of grammatical standards in the internet age feels faintly ridiculous. Why on earth would anyone tell us how to properly communicate when we’re making such a good fist of it? But we can’t unlearn what we’ve been told is correct, and so misplaced apostrophes can still look hideous, and we may judge those who get them wrong, and then angrily voice our displeasure on social media while making grammatical mistakes of our own while doing so (a prime example of what’s known, for obvious reasons, as “Muphry’s Law”).

Rules are a-changing

Every generation thinks that the subsequent one is hell bent on despoiling, demeaning and destroying the language that they grew up with; many of us may currently feel as if we’re being ushered hurriedly into an unpleasant room where “sick” means “marvellous”; and “banter” means “insults”. But, you know, I’m equally responsible for helping to change the meaning of “disinterested” to “uninterested”, and apparently I’ve been abusing the word “hopefully” for most of my adult life, too.

Grammar has its uses. We’re not going to suddenly abandon spaces between words and revert to the texts of pre-9th century Europe wheretheletterswereallbuncheduptogether. But mass communication has made us more aware of the things that matter, and the things that don’t.

Back in 2014 it pained me when I learned that Cambridge City Council was removing apostrophes from street signs (supposedly to avoid confusion for the emergency services) and felt pleased when they reversed their decision, but maybe it’s time to acknowledge that we’re sashaying into a world where apostrophes and commas are optional and where the full stop is going the way of the pilcrow (¶).

Grammar is ever evolving, and outside the examination room we’re allowed to express ourselves however we like. It’s those erratic, forceful, affectionate or funny grammatical tics that make modern communication so fascinating. Even if the computer says that we done done it wrong.

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