Is The Internet Making Us Better Writers?

The New Yorker reviews linguist Gretchen McCulloch new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language

For McCulloch, the primary feat of the digital writer has been to enlist typography to convey tone of voice. We’ve used technology to “restore our bodies to writing”: to infuse language with extra-textual meaning, in the same way that we might wave our hands during a conversation. One general principle is that communication leans toward the efficient, so any extra markings (sarcastic tildes, for instance, or a period where a line break will do) telegraph that there’s more to the message than its literal import. That’s how the period, in text messaging, earned its passive-aggressive reputation, and why so many visual flourishes default to implying irony. Similarly, the expressive lengthening of words like “yayyyy” or “nooo” confers a friendly intimacy, and technical marks (like the forward slash that ends a command in a line of code) find new life as social in-jokes (“/rant”). Typography, McCulloch writes, does not simply conjure the author’s mood. It instructs the reader about the purpose of the statement by gesturing toward the spirit in which the statement was conceived.

McCulloch’s project is, at heart, a corrective: she wants to puncture the belief that the Internet de-civilizes discourse. She brandishes research that shows that we become more polite as we get better at typing. (As with online irony, online civility emerges from linguistic superfluity, the perception that an extra effort has been made, whether through hedges, honorifics, or more over-all words….) Through gifs, emojis, and the playful repurposing of standard punctuation, McCulloch insists, Internet natives are bringing an unprecedented delicacy and nuance to bear on their prose. To back up this (strong) claim, the book proposes that the Internet’s informal English actually draws from a variety of registers, using tools old and new to create finely calibrated washes of meaning. Considering a real text from a teen-ager’s phone — “aaaaaaaaagh the show tonight shall rock some serious jam” — McCulloch highlights the archaic “shall” next to the casual “aaaaaaaaagh.” Such intermixing, she argues, makes Internet-ese “a distinct genre with its own goals. . . . to accomplish those goals successfully requires subtly tuned awareness of the full spectrum of the language…”

“We no longer accept,” she writes, “that nuanced writing is the exclusive domain of professionals….” Her book’s almost political thesis — the more voices, the better — rebukes both the elitism of traditional grammar snobs and the cliquishness of, say, Tumblr. It’s a vision of language as one way to make room for one another.

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