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Because Internet

Understanding the New Rules of Language

By Gretchen McCulloch
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Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

It’s common knowledge that the internet has profoundly changed society, and Because Internet (2019) looks at one specific and significant change: how online culture has transformed the English language. These blinks show how the web has created new linguistic rules, remixed old ones and democratized writing itself. Along with these shifts, prepare to explore the memes, emoji and demographic makeup of the internet.  

Key idea 1 of 8

The internet precipitated an eruption of informal writing.

If we consider writing for a second, most of us think of books, magazines and newspapers. For the vast majority of us, these mediums were how we acquired and sharpened our reading skills. As for actually writing, we usually cut our teeth with school essays and exam papers. 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with these mediums, but they all have an important thing in common: they’re all types of formal writing.  

Formal writing doesn’t just mean serious political journalism or dense academic articles – it’s any kind of edited prose that emphasizes form, often at the expense of immediate flair and creative flow. This includes self-editing, too: you might not have had the luxury of a copy editor combing through your tenth-grade English essay, but when writing, you were conscious of following the rules of proper spelling, grammar and syntax. 

For a long time, the vast majority of what anyone read was formal writing. After all, it costs money to print things with paper and ink – why waste cash on misspelled words and stodgy sentences? But things changed late last century, when the internet and mobile phones arrived.

These technologies dramatically expanded the amount of writing in everyday life, making it a day-to-day necessity for ordinary people. Phone calls gradually lost ground to emails and text messages. To reach an audience of thousands, you didn’t need to make it past the scrutiny of an editor anymore – you just needed to start a blog. 

And to compose these new daily messages, we used a different style of language: informal writing. This is immediate and unselfconscious writing, untouched by either newspaper editors or our own internal ones. When we text, or converse in internet chat rooms, it’s raw and conversational – just as if we were speaking. 

This explosion in informal writing began to change the nature of communication, and even language itself. 

Acronyms, for example, are common ways to save space in formal writing – think NASA or NATO. And since the informal writing explosion, acronyms have been repurposed by the masses for the same reason, but with very different results. Today, most people know that “BTW” stands for “by the way,” and “OMG” is shorthand for “oh my god.”

In this way, the rules of language are no longer handed down to us from figures of authority, like teachers and dictionary editors. With the internet, we’ve all become involved in crafting new forms of expression.

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