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With the rise of instant messaging and social media, written language has never been subject to fewer rules. Some claim that texting is actually more like speech than written communication but, even so, there should be some regulations that apply to it. However, if you’re one of those who has ever used “Lol” as an actual word in a conversation, you can see that even in that area the lines between what is considered everyday language-use and what’s just bizarre, have begun to blur.

It might, then, be understandable why some purists claim that the Internet, smartphones, texting, emojis, etc. are ruining language. But is that really the case?

A new style of communication

It’s no secret that the internet and social media have had a huge impact on language. Without a doubt, they’ve sped up the changes that occur naturally in languages as they develop to keep up with the times. Sadly, there is really very little to compare the effect of the Internet with, since no other force has had such a strong influence on how we communicate on a daily basis.

So, with the rise of new types of communication, it might make sense that new types of rules should follow. And, up to a point, that has really happened. But, sadly, these refer mostly to the general style of content written – don’t use capital letters, reference your sources, don’t mess up your acronyms (some of these we’ve covered in our Letters vs Emails post, as well). With the absence of custom-made grammar rules, the old ones should still remain in force. But those rules seem to be followed less and less these days.

The Twitter effect of grammar erosion

Twitter might be the biggest culprit of them all when it comes to neglecting grammar rules. With its limit on number of characters you can use in any one tweet, the first victim is usually spelling. That is, of course, understandable – with the urgency of getting your point across in 140 characters, you should pay less attention to how it is formed.

Twitter and writing on social media (which many wrongly presume is much like writing between friends) have definitely played their part in the decline of standard English. But that is missing the point a little bit.

Two sides of the language wars

The question between whether or not the Internet is ruining language mostly comes down to the two opposing sides in the language wars: the prescriptivists and the descriptivists.

In short, the prescriptivists believe in the supremacy of existing rules. They view grammar and use of language as a type of prescription to follow and see everything deviating from the set rules as wrong. They are the self-proclaimed Grammar Nazis, if you will.

The descriptivists busy themselves with describing the way language is actually used. They see grammar as fluid, changing in time to reflect the way people communicate with each other.

The answer depends on which camp you’re in

So, we can see how people who believe all grammar rules are holy and should be followed no matter what will inevitably find the Internet as a deathblow to proper language. But we should keep in mind that these people have always been unhappy. William Caxton, the man who introduced the printing press to England in the 15th century, was worried about the rapid changes in grammar and disliked the lax rules that came with them. Today, following all the rules that Mr. Claxton so enjoyed would make your English unintelligible.

The descriptivists, on the other hand, see language as a tool for communication and worry less about following a fixed set of rules. They are fascinated by the quick changes the Internet is causing in our everyday language, especially in the dying out of some grammar rules. The descriptive approach, however, produces some interesting questions: If usage is the only criterion for acceptability, then there really is no right or wrong in writing. For your average person, then, the prescriptive approach can provide much clearer answers to some basic grammar questions.

Photo credit: Flickr


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