NOTE: These several essays were reprinted as they related to the topic covered in my most recent essay.
It is a common argument whenever criticisms of spelling or grammar arise. "Hey, it's just a blog!" or "I'm just chatting on the internet." It is second only to "So long as you can understand me", an argument I already addressed several times ("Why Worry About Grammar?", "Why Spelling Matters (Again)", "Why Spelling Matters, One More Time"). It sounds like a cop-out, but, to be fair, is there something to it? Does it matter if someone writes "I dun car how uld hes, hes hawt"* or uses more standard spelling and grammar? Am I overreacting? Does grammar and spelling matter? More specifically, does it matter on internet chat rooms and blogs?
I have answered the first question, whether spelling and grammar matter, to my satisfaction ("In Defense of Standards" and "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism"), but the question remains, does it apply in these circumstances? Is it permissible to write casually on the internet?
To answer, the easiest approach is to ask "why do you write?" Do you write to have your name seen? To appear "kewl"? Or to make your thoughts known? Only in the final case can I really answer the question I posed. If you write for any other reason, then I suppose I have nothing to say, as it does not matter what you write if you just want to see your name in print. And if you write to impress through anything other than content, I can't judge either, not knowing the criteria.
But, if you write to be understood, to convey information, then we can agree on what is and is not important, and whether or not standards of spelling and grammar should be more lax on the internet.
My argument here has not changed. Spelling and grammar exist for a very simple, very functional reason. They are not arbitrary rules enforced by a cabal of stodgy grammarians. The rules exist because a standard set of rules makes it easier to understand one another, and, over time, these specific rules have shown themselves best at preventing misunderstandings, or clarifying the statements most common in our language and culture. Of course, over time, what is important and unimportant will change, so grammar will gradually change over time. However, one should not use that as an excuse to wantonly disregard the rules. You are not "driving change" by writing unintelligibly, you are simply indulging yourself and using a very easy excuse to justify it.
One other point before we look at this specific case. Clearly there are times when one needs to be less strict in following rules of grammar. In familiar company, with people who share a common shorthand, who understand one another well, it is very easy to use less than perfect grammar and still not risk misunderstanding. In addition, the less formal the setting, the less one needs to concern oneself with grammar. If you don't care about misunderstandings, or if a degree of uncertainty is acceptable, then one is justified in using imperfect grammar.
And I think it is that final case which people use to excuse bad writing on the internet. Their thought is that the internet is the ultimate in informal settings, and so one can use grammar he would use nowhere else. Since the internet is seen as being completely removed from formal venues, there is no requirement to obey even the most basic principles of grammar.
I would argue the opposite. Yes, the internet is an informal venue, but, provided one wants to convey some amount of information, even in informal settings one needs to be understood. And, in the case of the internet, I think the first principle I described is more important than the second. Yes, the internet is informal, but the problem is the lack of a shared vocabulary, or a familiar group, and that makes precision more important on the internet.
You see, informal settings are often informal because of a familiarity with participants. That allows one to employ shorthand and common vocabulary. The internet lacks that to a degree almost impossible to comprehend. Even when one is speaking in person to "total strangers", odds are good they share at least a common nation of origin, a common culture. On the internet, even that is an unsafe assumption. When writing on the internet, odds are good your readers come from multiple countries, multiple cultures, even have multiple native languages. You cannot count on sharing anything more than the most basic of human traits with them.
Under such circumstances, the possibility for misunderstanding is greater than anywhere else I can imagine. So, as long as one cares about conveying anything at all, despite the supposed informality of the internet, I would argue that it is best to use the most precise means possible to make one's meaning clear. Which means following to the greatest degree possible the rules of grammar. Perhaps, in settings where audience is restricted and one can be assured the readers are members of a familiar subset these rules can be relaxed, but, whenever the possibility exists of a wider audience, the anonymity and global nature of the internet make it essential that one obey the rules of grammar.
* This is an actual comment taken from a Youtube video. And it is far from the worst example I could find. I wanted something relatively easy to understand in this case, so I skipped some of the more unintelligible ones I have seen.The sad part is that I probably didn't need to add this footnote, as I know most readers have seen dozens of example far worse than this. (Cf "Why Spelling Matters (Again)", "Why Spelling Matters, One More Time", "HILARIOS DANCEING CAT", "Do People Think At All Before Writing?".)
The following posts contain all my writing on spelling and grammar:
Spelling NaziI omitted a handful that only touched on the subject, but the list contains all the posts which had any substantial discussion of the subject.
HILARIOS DANCEING CAT
Badly Chosen PC Words
Why Worry About Grammar?
Spelling Nazi Part 2
Why Spelling Matters (Again)
Spelling Nazi Part 3
It Warm's The Cockle's of my "Heart"
Tiny Grammar Gripe
Grammar Nazi Extra
Poor Grasp of the Meaning of Hypocrisy
A Grammar Nazi Rerun
Book Reviews? Calling All Readers
Oh No, Not Again
Conspiracy Theorists' False Logic (how bad spelling exposed a suspect document)
Oh No, Not Again
Why Spelling Matters, One More Time
Beyond Grammar and Spelling
A Thought on Iran (see footnote on transliteration)
Spelling Nazi Revisited
Grammar Nazi Gripe
The Spelling Nazi Begs to Differ
In Defense of Standards
Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"
Off Topic Grammar Post
Short Grammar Nazi Post
Woe Is Me Now for the Lord Has Added Grief to my Sorrow
One Last Gripe
One More Grammar Quibble
Do People Think At All Before Writing?
Reverse the Polarity of the Neutron Flow
Simple Grammar Nazi Post
Close But No Cigar
Grammar Nazi Comment on Greco-Latin Words
Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism
An off-Topic Pet Peeve
As usual, I am sure many will believe I am making too big a deal of this issue, and others will think me a stodgy old fellow insisting on pointless rules.("Cranky Old Man?") For those who truly think such rules are pointless, I doubt anything I could write would convince them otherwise. For everyone else, I can only say that, provided you believe writing is intended to impart information, then avoiding misunderstanding is essential, and, among the tools we have to make our meaning clear, grammar and spelling are the most effective and the easiest to employ. And that is why I mention them so often. In terms of results per unit of effort, grammar and spelling provide the greatest payoff. So why would anyone ignore them in favor of other, less efficient means of making your meaning clear? (I made a similar argument concerning "gender neutral language". As many times the sex of the individual is important, why use "female actor" when "actress" is much more simple? The only reason I can see is an obsessive need to cleanse the language of any hint of sexual biuas. See "A Question About Language".)
I would also like to mention that I am aware I do not always live up to the standards I set. I am aware of that, but I do not think that means my standards are not valid. It only means I am imperfect and fail to live up to my ideals. That failure does not make the ideals less worthwhile. So please don't bother to point out my failings, I am well aware of them.
I wrote this post some time ago, but failed to insert the citations. In going through old essays, I came across it and decided it was worthy of being posted. I didn't see anything in it that dated the writing, nor does the style differ much from the way I write now, but as I might have missed something, I decided to mention the age of the post so that any readers that noticed how old the links were (for example) or found some other indication of its age would know they are not mad, it really is a bit older than my other posts. (Though I did make some small alterations, included links to essays written after the original draft of this post, and in a few other small ways brought it up to date.)
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/12/20.