Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Frumpy netiquette

Journalist Stuart Jeffries visciously attacked the young today, calling them ‘illiterate slobs’ and ‘sub-articulate chimps’ in The Guardian. Why? Just because they don’t capitalise, tend to shorten words, and use emoticons in emails and messenger! What a daft old bugger.

Reverse ageism
This is reverse ageism or ‘youngism’. These online media have more in common with conversation than letters. Jeffries, a journalist, is simply hankering after the world he knows best – communication on paper. Users of new media don’t see email as letters-on-screen. It’s more like speech than writing, full of hesitations, asides, jokes - the sharper and snappier the better. Have you ever heard of someone stopping a conversation in mid-sentence saying, ‘Sorry, you misses an apostrophe there, it should have been a plural possessive with the apostrophe after the ‘s’?

Frumpy netiquette
Jeffries belongs to the frumpy, Lynn Truss school of literacy etiquette and quotes all sorts of etiquette and netiquette maniacs. The Truss book was devoured by those who think that, not knowing the twenty different ways to use a comma means having lost your moral compass. Older people tend to want to cling on to quaint ways in digital communication. They’d like us to stick doggedly to Dear Mr X…Yours sincerely/faithfully… (Is there anything less faithful or sincere than these terms?). He quotes one bizarre netiquette advisor who recommends ending emails with, ‘At your service…’ and ‘Virtually…’. One is stupidly servile, the other ridiculous.

Young people often prefer texts to speech on mobiles, not just because it’s cheaper, but because it’s better and shorter, more like dialogue, and more fun. They don’t shorten the words because they’re lazy or want to annoy their parents, it’s just easier to type in, and read at the other end on a small screen. It has nothing to do with standards of literacy.

One could argue that it indirectly promotes illiteracy. In fact, research from the University of Nottingham has shown that good texters have high levels of literacy. The most fervent texters turned out, surprisingly, to have the highest scores on traditional literacy tests. It is thought that it supports a deep phonetic understanding of the structure of language, essential for good literacy and spelling.

You’ve really got to use this medium to get a feel for its unique form of dialogue. You’ll soon find yourself abandoning correct spelling, transposed letters in words due to poor keyboard skills and ditching punctuation and capitalisation. It’s the communication that counts. We don’t punctuate and capitalise in speech and similarly in messenger.

An added dimension in messenger, is the ability to link to images, sound and video, and other web sites, while conversing. This can enrich a conversation in a way that is impossible when you are not online. It’s a hybrid of online and offline communication where the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole.

Emoticons, in particular, drive older people crazy. Yet, in messenger, and in email, they can add some fun, even nuance, to the message. They work better in messenger, as it really is a form of conversation, not written communication. I suspect it’s because the middle England is uncomfortable with expressions of emotional intimacy that they react so badly to what is seen by young people as a blatant bit of fun.

Letters are mostly bills or junk
When I come back from holiday, I have to wade through ankle deep junk mail. This is what the world of letters has descended to, envelopes designed to trick and con you into opening them (disguised as official communication), crass design and promises of non-existent prizes. Letter writing is now the art of older, marketing people selling to other older people, the only group still hanging onto the joys of opening an envelope. My kids never open junk mail. Only older people look at this stuff.

Even worse, letter writing has become synonymous with polite extortion through bills and bad news. Utilities companies and banks will send incredibly polite letters correctly headed with appropriate warm greetings and sign offs, while they rip into you with excessive charges and penalties. They’ll mug you, albeit with high quality prose.

Renaissance of writing
Never in history have so many young people written so much to so many on a daily basis, almost obsessively communicating through written language. The fact that it doesn’t conform to some outdated, linguistic idea of language, frozen in time (always your time) is not the point. They understand the fluidity of language, are fully expressive and live in the context of bountiful, online, social networks we older people can barely imagine.

When I was young I barely wrote a word that wasn’t formal homework or the occasional letter to a penpal, which took weeks, both sides giving up through sheer boredom. We have gone from formal and occasional to informal and hourly communication in the space of a generation. More power to their texting elbows.

Language changes, shifts, expands its vocabulary, drops its dead wood and develops through new dialects. We should celebrate this diversity, not squeeze the life out of it by making it conform to some home counties, Trussed-up idea of etiquette. Resistance, even that most fascistic form the French Resistance (Academie Francaise) who have tried, in vain, to fossilise and protect language, is futile. Language lives, breathes and progresses.

Baby-boomers reflect
We baby-boomers ought to reflect on our propensity to blame the young for a drop in standards. We’re the people who have trashed the planet, treating it like a playground and dumping ground, not them. They’ve got it sussed. Why destroy the planet for the sake of having paper conversations? Get online and help save the planet rather than complaining in wasteful newsprint about something you don’t understand.


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what you have to say here, and find myself the unlikely middle-aged adopter of some of the language habits purportedly reserved for the young. Since I have always tended to write pretty much as I speak, my informal writing is littered with self-interruptions in the form of dashes and parentheses. Nevertheless, I confess a jealous protectiveness of the apostrophe, so I guess I have a foot in each camp.

And for a fine example of non-capitalisation, look no further than Dave Lee!

This criticism of the younger generation is nothing new - examples can be found among the writings of the classical Greeks.

However, there is one nitpicky point I would like to make. I take serious issue with the attachment of the term "reverse" to any discriminatory practice or attitude. Reverse racism, reverse ageism. What the heck is that? Somehow that would imply that racism/ageism/whateverism can only truly by applied in one direction, so its reverse must be identified as such. So when white people are discriminatory against black people, that's racism, but when black people discriminate against white people, that's reverse racism? Sorry - I don't buy it. Somehow that seems discriminatory in itself. Ageism is the practice of discriminating against a sector of the population based on their age. End of. Whether that age is 16 or 75 doesn't change the principle.

Clive Shepherd said...

An excellent post which echoes my thoughts entirely. I must confess to finding it hard not to notice spelling, punctuation and other errors, because that's the way I am, but, like you, I believe we've seen the opposite of what Stuart Jeffries claims, i.e. the rebirth of writing as a medium for communication. I simply don't understand why professional writers and journalists find this so threatening.

Clive Shepherd said...

By a quirk of chance, my Blogger word verification string was 'petdike'. What does this mean? Is it some sort of sign?

Anonymous said...

Yes, online writing is often treated, and thus written, as speech, and emoticons etc. are a useful extension of communication. This is good, and complaining about it is misguided. However, it is another thing entirely to use constructions such as "could of" for "could have", apostrophe-s to denote a plural, and so on. Commas are also important, as the very title of Truss' book shows. This isn't being flexible, it is using language without understanding it. This is not "a deep phonetic understanding of the structure of language", just the opposite, and it is seen far too often.
Jefferies is wrong to criticise flexibility, emoticons and so on, but excusing misunderstanding as 'flexibility' is also wrong.

Donald Clark said...

We're in the 'grey' zone here. Apostrophe's are awkward to text on simple numeric keypads and 'could of' is shorter than 'could have', so why not?

'Could of' is, arguably, phonetically correct, corresponding closely to 'could've'.

Punctuation, especially the comma, is hugely variable in practice. Witness the dulld ebate in the Truss book on the subject. Even a pedant of her calibre gave up trying to define the rules!

Unknown said...

To me, this BBC article seems to be an example of what you are saying, Donald?...who is easier to understand in this article? And check out the comments...

Still a lot of protectionism out there concerning the English language


diane said...

Interesting that Masha Bell, in the BBC article to which domatk links, keeps slipping back into correct spelling - if simplified spelling is more easily understandable, why can't she sustain it, and why does it slow down my reading and comprehension? Would Southern or Western or Midwestern pronunciation lead to phonetic spellings that my Northeastern-accented brain couldn't decode?

I believe that our younger generation is capable of maintaining fluency in text talk and standard English!

Donald Clark said...

The fact that we find it difficult is simply that our learnt comprehension skills are on the irregular language we were taught and learnt.

Simplified spelling that eliminated silent and redundant letters and punctuation would make little or no difference to people with different accents.

An optimal written language would be easy to learn with minimal amounts of irregularity and redundancy. I, for one, much prefer US English, which is simpler and less irregular than British English.

Unknown said...

I've always been against textspeak. As a general rule, unless it's from my daughter I won't answer a text message where the English has been excessively mutilated. However, in the interest of keeping an open mind I thought I'd send a friend an email using this rehashed form of the language.

It took me almost ten minutes to compose two short sentences. I had to stop and think about what constituted an understandable abbreviation. I suppose '2', 'C' and 'U' come readily enough to mind but struggling with the concept of what might be readable to another party was a real ordeal. Do you leave out the vowels? Miss out silent letters? Spell everything phonetically? What if you have an accent, do you try to textspeak in dialect?

And then I though about the logistics of typing a text message on a mobile. Assuming you don't have predictive text turned on - and you can't really, lest you add every abbreviation to your custom dictionary - sometimes it's just as easy to type out an abbreviation than the real word. "Wiv" is a cringe-inducing favourite of my daughter's. On a numeric kepyad it takes exactly the same amount of keystrokes as typing "with". If half the people you address this way pay no attention because they do it too, and the other half wonder why you had to butcher the English language so, what exactly is gained by substituting "wiv"? It's not as though she is one of those 'sub-educated chimps', or whatever the term was - she actually pronounces it as "with".

The whole idea of this 'sub-language' seems counterproductive. Not everyone understands it, not everyone employs the same rules, as as for believing that typing "wiv" is in some way more 'fun' than typing "with"... you have a long way to go before you've sold me on that one, I'm afraid.

Perhaps if there was some set of rules, an agreed standard that people could employ when they adressed each other in text. And then, I thought, didn't I already study something like that at school?

Andy Tedd said...

I particularly like your last paragraph Donald. It is one of my favorite observations. Baby boomers so don't get it. Remember the indignation from many of the old hacks when you did this bit of the talk at the beeb? Priceless.

It's just another bit of whining by a generation not coming to terms with the fact that is having to handover to the next/nxt/whatever.

Rina Tripathi said...

Beautiful Donald. Thanks for sharing. Wish I had read all this wonderful information earlier. I like messenger and thrugh this have learned and shared alot with like minded people. Regards