The winner of the 2012 United States National Texting Championship texted 149 words in 39 seconds with no errors. This impressive feat by 17-year-old Austin Wierschke is an example of the numerous ways social media has had an impact on our lives in today’s society. And, unfortunately, not all of us have such gifted thumbs, so we tend to neglect spelling, grammar, and punctuation when communicating online.
Since so much written language we see today comes from a glowing screen, language has begun to evolve through our interaction with technology. Social media and the Internet have had a rapid and profound effect on the English language, and not necessarily for the better. More and more people have found themselves writing in fragments, overlooking punctuation, and using obscure acronyms both in written and verbal language.
Punctuation has always been one of the most important aspects of language; it tells the reader when to pause, conveys tone, and organizes words into phrases that can be easily read. Through social media, though, a new attitude has formed regarding punctuation. For example, the period, the humblest of all punctuation marks, has been so far disregarded that it has taken on new meanings.
Rather than acting as a neutral way to indicate a pause or conclusion, writer Ben Crair notes in his article, “The Period Is Pissed,” that the lowly dot has recently taken the more passive-aggressive tone of “I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.”
This is a modern example of paralinguistic restitution – stylistic adaptations that do not involve words that are made in writing to account for the loss of face-to-face communication. The period being an indication of an eye roll is the same phenomena as capitalization for emphasis and multiple punctuation marks for excitement. In texting especially, the period is commonly replaced with a line break, while the real deal is saved for passive-aggressive statements.
Styles of punctuation and paralinguistic restitution are derived from the mechanics of standard English and make no sense without them. How is one to recognize that “…” indicates a particularly long pause without knowing what “.” means? The neglect for even simple punctuation creates an online language that’s nearly unrecognizable as formal English, as well as making it difficult to organize thoughts and coordinate understanding among large audiences.
In addition to our use of punctuation, social media has affected the words we use in our everyday lives. Abbreviations and acronyms commonly known as “text talk” have made their way into both spoken and written language.
How many times have you typed “LOL” in response to a humorous message? Referred to someone as your “BFF?” Exclaimed, “OMG!” during a particularly shocking event? As linguist John McWhorter points out in his article, “Twitterish,” another one of these trends is the spoken hashtag. He writes, “The new thing, however, is using the word ‘hashtag’ in conversation … you may be catching people saying things like, ‘I ran into that guy I met – hashtag happy!’ or, in response to someone complaining, ‘My flashlight app isn’t working,’ perhaps you have heard the retort, ‘Hashtag First World problems!’ A college student not long ago reported a favorite witticism to be appending observations with: ‘Hashtag did that just happen?’”
Acronyms and abbreviations such as these are becoming increasingly popular as people strive for brevity in texts and struggle to meet word limits on Twitter. In addition, the speed of the Internet means language is changing faster than ever. You no longer have to be published through physical and traditional means to bring word trends to public attention.
As with many fads, people claim the plethora of new terms is a passing trend, and nobody will be using them in just a couple of decades. With the evolution of language, old terms are bound to disappear and fall out of style, but newer and more obscure examples of Internet jargon are bound to take their place.
The Oxford English Dictionary begs to differ. In 2011, a slew of Internet terms including, “LOL,” “BRB,” “OMG,” and “BFF” were added to the dictionary, making these acronyms official parts of the English language. According to the dictionary writers, these terms aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Another casualty of the rapid influx of social media is grammar. The text people publish on the Internet is often raw, unedited, and informal – a sharp contrast to the formal, edited prose of published works just a decade ago. Especially specific, nitpicky details in the grammatical conventions of standard English have largely been ignored or forgotten, such as when to use who versus whom, or how to employ a semicolon.
Scrolling through any social media feed yields many examples of poor grammar, whether it be sentence fragments, improper subject-verb agreement, or confusing certain words. In his article “R Grammar Gaffes Ruining The Language? Maybe Not,” Linton Weeks lists examples in the news, telling about a “report from a radio station’s website about a thief who ‘had ran out of gas’ or [a] Fox News item about a dog owner who said ‘her dog had ran away.’”
Some scholars disagree. Matthew Gordon, a linguist at the University of Missouri, argues that such discrepancies are not new or recent turns of events. He says, “People have always had trouble with homophones, and they have always used language creatively, coining new words or respelling established words.” The difference today is we see an exponentially larger amount and broader spectrum of writing thanks to the Internet and are therefore more likely to notice common mistakes.
Slang and shortcuts are so often used on social media and Internet platforms, though, that a slipping of grammar skills can be logically attributed to the informality and looseness of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other forms of social media.
The words and mechanics you use in everyday life are a reflection of yourself; this is especially true on the Internet with the absence of physical interaction. With the Internet and social media rapidly gaining popularity, soon your words may be all you have left. Make them good ones.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.