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Breaking down the Internet’s influence on grammar and punctuation [excerpt]

The Internet has become a key part of modern communication. But how has it influenced language structure? Surprisingly, formal writing remains unchanged. Informal writing, however, has seen an influx of stylistic changes. In the following shortened extract from Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, renowned linguist David Crystal breaks down the grammatical and syntactical evolution of language in the Internet-era.

The most obvious novelties [of the Internet’s influence on English] relate to the use of punctuation to mark constructions, where many of the traditional rules have been adapted as users explore the graphic opportunities offered by the new medium. We see a new minimalism, with marks such as commas and full stops omitted; and a new maximalism, with repeated use of marks as emotional signals (fantastic!!!!!!). We see some marks taking on different semantic values, as when a full stop adds a note of abruptness or confrontation in a previously unpunctuated chat exchange. And we see symbols such as emoticons and emojis replacing whole sentences, or acting as a commentary on sentences.

Although the formal character of grammar has been (so far) unaffected by the arrival of the Internet, there have been important stylistic developments. Short-messaging services, such as text messaging and Twitter, have motivated a style in which short and elliptical sentences predominate, especially in advertisements and announcements:

Talk by @davcr Wednesday 8 pm Holyhead litfest.

Grammar matters – dont miss.

The combination of shortening techniques plus the use of nonstandard punctuation makes it difficult at times to assign a definite syntactic analysis to the utterance. We often encounter a series of sentential fragments:

get a job? no chance still gotta try – prob same old same

old for me its a big issue or maybe Big Issue lol

We get the gist, but only the tweeter would be able to tell us whether, for example, the phrase for me goes with the preceding construction or the following one. On the other hand, the 140 characters of Twitter are sufficient to allow sentences of 25 or 30 words, so we also find messages that are grammatically regular and complex, with standard punctuation:

I’ll see you after the movie, if it doesn’t finish too late.

Will you wait for me at the hotel entrance where we met last time?

Long-messaging services, such as blogging, where there is no limitation on the number of characters, have allowed a style of discourse characterized by loosely constructed sentences that reflect conversational norms. Nonstandard grammatical choices now appear in formal written settings (print on screen) that would never have been permitted in traditional written texts, where editors, copy-editors, and proofreaders would have taken pains to eliminate them.

Blogs display lots of syntactic blends – the conflation of two types of sentence construction. Here are some simple blends I’ve seen online:

For which party will you be voting for in the March 9 election?

From which country does a Lexus come from?

In each case, we have a blend of a formal sentence, where the preposition goes in the middle, and an informal one, where it goes at the end:

For which party will you be voting? / Which party will you be voting for?

From which country does a Lexus come? / Which country does a Lexus come from?

Syntactic blends arise when people are uncertain about which construction to use – so they use them both. They are very common in speech. It’s an unconscious process, which operates at the speed of thought. We rarely see them in writing because copy-editors have got rid of them, but they surface quite often online, where such controls are absent. In this next example, the blend is more difficult to spot, unless you try reading it aloud:

Although MajesticSEO have already entered into the browser extension market with their release of their Google Chrome extension, the news that their release on Monday will open up their services to Mozilla Firefox browser users, giving them even quicker access to the information that they receive while using the tool.

Something goes horribly wrong when we reach users. We need a finite verb to make this sentence grammatical. It has to be gives them or is giving them or will give them, or the like. The problem here is that the writer has used a very long subject (the news … users, seventeen words), so by the time he gets to the verb he’s forgotten how the sentence is going. He evidently thinks that the sentence began at their release on Monday, where a non-finite giving would be acceptable.

the release … gives them even quicker access … their release on Monday will open up their services to Mozilla Firefox browser users, giving them even quicker access …

What is semantically most important in the writer’s mind (the news of the release) has taken priority over the grammatical construction.

It’s the length of constructions that gets in the way, in cases like this. Once a construction goes beyond the easy limits of working memory capacity, problems arise. If we ignore the grammatical words and focus on only the items with lexical content, we see the writer is trying to deal with nine chunks of meaning:

the news – their release – on Monday – will open up – their services – to Mozilla Firefox – browser – users [giving them even quicker access]

This is an awful lot to remember. No wonder the writer loses his way. He can’t recall where he’s been, and he’s anxious to push on to his main point, which is ‘quicker access’. So in his mind he starts the sentence all over again. If he’d read it through after writing it, or said it aloud (always a useful strategy), he might have spotted it. Even better, he might have rewritten the whole thing to make two shorter sentences. As it stands, it’s a 50-word monster.

Internet grammar in unconstrained settings such as blogs displays many features like blends that would pass unnoticed in everyday conversation, but which would attract criticism if they appeared in formal writing. Because most blogs are personal and informal, we pay little attention to them, as long as the writers get their meaning across.

The Internet is the world in which we live in now; but for grammarians it’s not only one that presents them with evolving styles and controversial usages. A major impact of the Internet is educational – the way it offers fresh opportunities and methods for the teaching and learning of grammar. Already, many grammar courses exist, aimed at both first language and foreign-language audiences, of all ages, and the availability of multi-media allows access to all spoken and written varieties of the language.

Featured image credit: “photo/business-communication-computer-connection” by Pixabay. CC0 via Pexels.

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