The Internet Isn’t Changing English. Nor the Converse.

Choire Sicha

Choire Sicha of The Awl

I don’t buy any of the argument in Katy Waldman’s Slate article about language on the internet. I’m not looking for the most “shocking and magnificent change the web has worked in language” because I don’t think the web is changing our language at all. The various headlines, summaries, sharelines, and text of Waldman’s piece compete with and contradict each other in their striking but unsupported claims: “Language took over the internet…”; “the internet is changing language…”; “the future of language on the internet might not include words at all…” (I guess the latter claim, a shareline that shows up as the headline when Waldman’s article is shared via Facebook, must refer to a future where Homo sapiens has become extinct but the net is still up and running.)

Waldman really identifies nothing more than the observation that internet writing is more informal than print. “Once upon a time, professional writing sounded like writing. Now it often sounds like speech.” Yes, compared to much printed prose, web publications have a style more similar to conversation. Hardly a breakthrough. It’s hard to imagine someone not having noticed this.

Serious publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education do tend on the whole to stick with formal English conventions. I’ve heard it said around the water cooler here at The Chronicle that originally the Editorial Powers That Be were so opposed to “contractions” (auxiliary verbs either inflectionally negated, as in don’t or can’t, or cliticized to subjects, as in we’ll and she’s, etc.) that they were inclined to disallow them even in blog posts. They relented. Just as well. Blogging is blogging, and it’s meant to sound much closer to someone chatting than to the content of an academic paper. I’m not sure I could chat to you like this without ever negating or cliticizing an auxiliary. But that doesn’t mean the internet is changing language! It just means that in the blogging medium we draw more on the well-established informal register of standard English, which has been there all along.

Waldman’s poster boy for the new language of the internet is Choire Sicha (pictured above), co-founder of The Awl. She cites a New Yorker essay about him by Alice Gregory, who refers to Sicha’s “humorously helpful parentheticals, doubt-inducing scare quotes, casual ‘like’s dropped carefully amidst otherwise competent sentences, and gratuitous exclamation points,” and claims that these “communicate a set of core values that he’s carried with him from job to job: genuine egalitarianism, acrobatic diplomacy, unregulated intimacy.”

I’ve read some Sicha to see if I can spot this chaos of parentheticals and punctuation and incompetent likes, and I simply don’t think a defense of Gregory’s claims (or Waldman’s endorsement of them) could be mounted.

Consider the claim about like. Of the half-dozen words spelled like (being a language nerd, I listed them in this Lingua Franca post), Gregory’s reference to the ones “dropped carefully amidst otherwise competent sentences” is surely intended to refer to the interjection, which is certainly limited to highly informal style. And in Sicha’s “The One Cool Trick All Men Need to Know to Do Yoga” I did find this remark:

Anyway like, if you’re straining and it hurts, you should like just stop and chill out. You don’t really do like ‘strain’ in yoga?

Three occurrences of the interjection in just 24 words (12.5 percent of the word tokens) is certainly very high. (And there’s a question mark signalling “uptalk” intonation at the end, too.)

But that’s just one show-offy passage echoing the sound of highly colloquial speech, for special effect. There are no other occurrences of like in the entire article. Here’s another sentence from it:

Is it possible for men to go an hour without expressing their feelings in a performative way that is intended to induce emotional care-taking labor around them?

Completely plain-vanilla serious prose without a single distinctively informal feature. Sicha’s writing is often on the informal end of the spectrum, yes, but does it really show an anarchic display of parentheticals, quotation marks, question marks, and exclamation points at a frequency higher than the average for miscellaneous prose? I’m open to considering quantitative evidence on this, but after a preliminary skim it doesn’t look that way to me. It doesn’t seem to me to reflect some wild divergence from previous English.

It has always struck me as strange that so many people make up such wildly exaggerated and unsupported things to say about language use, and get them published. You just don’t find it about other fields. Slate doesn’t publish unsubstantiated hyperbole about metallurgy or anatomy or botany. Only language gets this sort of frothing, foaming style of discussion, with its often visibly false assertions. I wish I understood why.

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