Facebook posts and text messages are far from being bastions of grammar. People’s communication online has an informal quality that is often at odds with established linguistic rules, but Montreal-based linguist Gretchen McCulloch says that it’s not really that big of a problem. McCulloch’s new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language explores the style of informal writing people use when talking on the internet, which mirrors a sense of hanging out with friends rather than giving a proper speech. To create this informality, to give the impression of face-to-face conversation, people have created a “typographical tone of voice.”
“We no longer accept that writing must be lifeless, that it can only convey our tone of voice roughly and imprecisely, or that nuanced writing is the exclusive domain of professionals,” McCulloch argues. “We’re creating new rules for typographical tone of voice. Not the kind of rules that are imposed from on high, but the kind of rules that emerge from the collective practice of a couple billion social monkeys — rules that enliven our social interactions.”
By transforming the way words are typed, people have created a new way of expressing themselves. For example, emphasis can be expressed by using ALL CAPS, or using exclamation points. Lengthening words suggest emphasis and friendliness, like nooo and misspellings often happen to mimic natural speak, such as yaassss. Emojies and smileys have morphed into digital gestures, along with animated gifs that can get a point across in an instant. Sarcasm is expressed through the use of the tilde symbol, like ~interesting~ or by typing in uppercase and lowercase letters, such as I HaD nO iDeA.
McCulloch suggests that these alterations on grammar rules does not indicate a devolution of intelligence. “Several studies show that people who use a lot of internet abbreviations perform, at worst, just as well on spelling tests, formal essays, and other measures of literacy as people who never use abbreviations — and sometimes even better,” she writes.