Introduction and positive effects on writing
The internet is changing the way we communicate. LOL, awks, amazeballs, BRB, the use of emoji and emoticon – and even writing facial expressions such as ‘sad face’ – have all become standard in digital communications. So ingrained, in fact, that they’re changing the way we write and even talk.
“People are becoming less concerned with grammar, spelling and sentence structure, and more concerned with getting their message across,” says Gavin Hammar, CEO and founder of Sendible , a UK-based social media dashboard for business.
There’s no doubt that the consumption of abbreviated digital content is having a huge effect on language. “Over the last five years attention spans have shortened considerably, which is reflected in the contracted forms of language we see in social media,” says Robin Kermode, founder of communications coaching consultancy Zone2 and author of the book ‘ Speak So Your Audience Will Listen: A practical guide for anyone who has to speak to another human being ‘.
However, some think that the internet has made us better communicators since we increasingly use much more streamlined language. “To get a message across using Twitter for example, it must be concise and must conform to the tone used there, which includes abbreviations, acronyms and emoticons,” say Hammar.
What about emoticons and emojis?
The fastest growing ‘new language’ in the world is emoticons (faces) and emojis (images of objects, which hail from Japan), which are one of the biggest changes caused by digital communications. “Facial expressions, visual presence and body language have always been vital to being a confident speaker, but now emojis are blurring the lines between verbal and written communication,” thinks Kermode, who adds that cavemen had early versions of emojis on the sides of their caves. “Pictures, cartoons or emojis are ‘shortcuts’ so we can be clear about what our message really means.”
If you mainly use emojis, why not get a keyboard based around smiley faces and cartoon icons? That’s exactly what Swyft Media recently created, and while it’s more of a PR stunt the keyboards of the future will probably contain at least some emojis.
How emojis add meaning
Emoticons and emoji are arguably more meaningful than slang and shorthand, which can be too easily misunderstood. “I once witnessed a girl being dumped in a text, which consisted of a message with just five letters, ‘UR MY X’ – linguistically economic, but emotionally harsh,” says Kermode. Trouble is, the sender had actually meant ‘YOU ARE MINE. X ‘. “If he’d added three emojis – like a smiley face, a heart and a wedding ring, he might now be happily married!”
The same goes for a statement such as “I NEED TO SPEAK TO YOU RIGHT NOW “, which needs a qualifying emoticon or emoji to give it meaning. “It could signal an angry meeting or a passionate meeting but add a coffee cup, a big smiley face or an angry face and it becomes clear what’s really going on,” says Kermode.
They may be derided by traditionalists, but emoticons and emojis used to describe mood are the body language add-on that the written word has always lacked. In most instances, these icons represent language evolution and progress, not regression.
The web’s positive effects on writing
Some think that the internet is actually sharpening up writing skills, particularly of professional writers, creating new niches and specialisms. “[The internet] lays bare the disparity between good and bad copy, which has resulted in writers and editors becoming better educated and more aware of global grammatical standards, raising the bar overall,” says Paul Parreira, founder of digital content creation agency Company Cue , which has a network of 800 highly skilled writers and programming experts working in 32 languages.
He thinks that the internet is also driving language to become more globalised, with Americanisms such as’ road trip ‘,’ what’s up? ‘ and ‘like’ being used as a conversational link now ingrained into what’s fast being called ‘International English’ or ELF (English Lingua Franca). It has nothing to do with where the language originated, and often those that use a basic form of ELF online can understand each other far easier than native English speakers.
However, online English has also spawned new specialism and skills among professional, often native English speaking writers. “Writing has become more idiosyncratic and unique,” says Parreira, “creating new breeds of writers – those that specialise in short form and those that focus on long form … it’s rare to find writers than can excel in both.”
Mobile devices and context
Are mobile devices and 140 character limits changing language?
There’s little room to worry about grammar in 140 characters, goes the argument, and besides, conforming to the rules of engagement in the Twitter-sphere is far more important than old grammatical rules. “With people consuming so much content on their mobile devices with services like Twitter and Facebook, it is only natural that they are influenced by it and respond in the same way,” says Hammar. “Reading short bursts of poorly constructed content from a young age impacts on the learning experience and filters into our everyday lives.”
Not that any of this is the fault of Twitter et al. “It is the web culture itself rather than mobile devices and social channels that are driving some of the negative aspects of language standards,” says Parreira.
It’s all about context
Arguably none of this matters, except it does when those who get so used to using text-speak enter the world of work where basic online-isms like LOL (laughing out loud) – however basic that might seem to some – can easily mean ‘lots of love’ ( thanks, David Cameron ).
It’s therefore best for those entering the workforce to assume nothing and communicate formally with older co-workers and clients, at least at first. “The lines between internet communication and business communication are being blurred, with millennials finding it difficult to switch between the two styles and identifying which one is appropriate and when,” says Hammar, who thinks that people will soon struggle to express themselves in a business environment where a formal tone is usually the standard.
“It’s still now difficult to imagine senior executives using LOL and ROFL when signing a deal,” he says, advising that you can use shorthand to give your company a personality online to delight customers, but only if it’s used very wisely. “Remember, ‘BRB’ (meaning ‘be right back’) and ‘I will be away from my desk for the next two hours. I will respond as soon as I get back,’ are not interchangeable – it’s important to know when to use which message. “
He advises allowing clients to begin with emoticons, smilies or even basic text-speak before indulging in anything other than well-constructed, grammatically correct formal language.
Why changing online language does not matter
Since society as a whole has about as much control over language as it does over earthquakes, this is a moot point at best. “Culture has a way of evolving and that’s exactly what we’re experiencing with language,” says Parreira, who points out that the iOS spelling fix on the iPhone has improved of late. It also now offers to finish words as you type and arguably brings at least an illusion of accuracy.
Education will need to change, too. “It will become less of a priority to educate the youth in strict grammar usage, since the world will no longer expect it,” says Hammar. ‘Standard’ grammar is evolving, too, since digital shorthand and text-speak are now creeping into spoken language.
“We are now hearing people actually saying ‘sad face’ at the end of a sentence as in ‘ The weekend was a disaster. Sad face ‘, “says Kermode, who asks if it will eventually be replaced by a new linguistic idea. “Yes, of course, it’s just that none of us know exactly what that will be yet … quizzical face, winking smiley, rainbow.”