Saturday, 4 September 2010

The WhyNotSmile Guide To Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar On The Internet

I don't want to come over all Lynne Truss on you all, but it has become clear of late that the quality of writing on the internet has slipped alarmingly in recent times, and if I don't take it in hand, frankly, who will?  With this in mind, I set to thinking, and it is thus with great pleasure that I present:

The WhyNotSmile Guide To Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar On The Internet

The rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar on the internet (SPAGOTI) are generally more relaxed than those in real life, and it pays little to get worked up over simple typing mistakes (hte, adn etc.). Indeed, the internet (and other modern technology) has birthed new language of its own, from the smilie, which we like, LOLspeak, which we like in its own domain (we shall return to this presently), and abbreviations like 'ur l8' ('You appear to be running behind schedule') which is ok (but not necessarily to be encouraged) on a mobile phone, but is intensely irritating anywhere else.

In general, it is fair to say that the internet is a fast-moving medium, and to this end, one does not wish to be pedantic about those instances when the spellchecker was an unnecessary hinderance; it is, however, reasonable to expect that communication be understandable and that it show signs that the communicator has put in some effort. With this in mind, we now consider the various elements of the Rules of SPAGOTI.

1. Bad typing. As stated above, there is a difference between bad spelling and bad typing, and this should be respected. We all miss a letter from time to time, and sometimes we mix letters up because one finger paused for thought and another overtook. This is acceptable, and, unless it is excessive, it does not do to be churlish about it.

2. You're, your and ur; there, their, ther and they're etc. The following is a comprehensive guide; please memorise it:
  • You're = You are. The apostrophe indicates that a letter has been omitted, as in 'phone for telephone, wasn't for was not, and 'ee by gum, which has omitted both some letters and any semblance of meaning. Example: You're learning fast
  • Your indicates 'belonging to you'. Like 'our', but it's yours. Example: 'Your toothbrush'.
  • Ur is text speak, and can be used IN TEXT MESSAGES ONLY to replace either of the above. This is an inappropriate place to give an example, as this is not a text message.
  • Use = put into service, as in 'I would like to use your bicycle tomorrow'.  It is not the plural of 'you'.  Neither is 'youse'. Also, you write 'youse', I think 'louse'.
  • There = in that place. Like 'where' and 'here'. It specifies a location. Example: The book is over there.
  • Their indicates 'belonging to them'. Like 'your', but theirs. Example: Their spelling is excellent.
  • They're = They are. Again, the apostrophe indicates that a letter has been omitted. It's really not that complicated. Example: They're starting to get the hang of this.
  • Ther is not a word.
  • It's = It is.  It's the apostrophe = missing letter thing again.
  • Its = belonging to it.  Like his or hers.
  • Its' is not a word
3. LOLspeak. It is possible that you have come across something which appeared to be badly spelt, but which you were able to understand when you said it out loud. If so, it is likely that this was either Ulster-Scots, or LOLspeak. LOLspeak is the language used on the Lolcats/Cheezburger sites. For those who have not come across this site before, it is essentially a worldwide, ongoing caption competition (with no prizes), in which anyone ('hoomans') can submit a humourous ('funneh') (or, indeed, non-humourous ('non-funneh')) caption ('capshun') to accompany a picture ('pictur') of a cat ('kitteh'). In many cases the humour is derived from the juxtaposition of the cat's seriousness with the incorrect spelling which goes along with it.
This is fine as far as it goes; the difficulty arises when the langauge of LOLcats is taken outside of its natural habitat and smattered disregardingly across the rest of the internet, or even (horror of horrors) onto actual, physical paper. At this point, a boundary has been crossed, and not for the better.

4. Abbreviations. It is perfectly acceptable to shorten 'later' to 'l8r' in a text message.  It is not acceptable to do this in an email, particularly if you are trying to convey a serious point.  On the other hand, there is no sense in doing everything in longhand; for instance, do not feel you must refer to 'Compact Discs', 'Personal Computers' or 'Automated Teller Machines'.
As a rough guide, if your father would understand it, then it's fine.  Your mother should not be used as a guide, as they are ferocious for picking up abbreviations and using them like crazy.

5. Please learn to differentiate the following words:
  • chose = past tense (Last week, I chose strawberry ice cream).  choose = present tense (I choose tea, in general).
  • lose = become unable to find (where did you lose it?).  loose = not tight

Contrary to what appears to be an alarmingly popular opinion, punctuation is as important on the internet as it is anywhere else.  'Punctuation' is all those little dots, dashes and wavy lines that are used to create smilies.  It appears to be unknown to some, but these all have value in their own right, as we shall now consider:

1.The 'Full Stop', or 'Period'.  That's the little dot which you may have noted at the end of all my sentences.  The full stop virtually exists to end sentences.  Because sometimes, no matter how important your point is, you have to stop talking.  At that point, you should enter a full stop.  For instance, the following are correct uses for full stops:
  • The cat sat on the mat.
  • I ran a marathon today.
  • He went to the shop; I do not know when he will return.
The following are incorrect:
  • The cat sat on the mat then he ate lunch then it went outside lol
  • He laughed. at me because I can't spell
From time to time it is acceptable to omit the full stop; for instance, in headings, or when the sentence ends with a question.
The other main use of a full stop is to denote an abbreviation.  E.g., e.g., i.e., etc., ibid. and so on; while there are rules about this on paper, I think we can safely say that in the online world one need not be too concerned.  Some abbreviations, such as Dr, NATO and CD do not require full stops, although I am not sure why.

2. The Comma.  The comma may well be the most abused punctuation mark in existence.  Partly this is because insertion of a comma is often a matter of personal preference, and partly it is because the comma has begun to be some sort of catch-all punctuation mark which is used by the uninformed as a short-cut.
Theoretically, it is possible to construct reasonably intelligible sentences without the use of a single comma, particularly in text messages and Facebook stati, and in many cases of uncertainty this is the best course of action.  Of course, one must take care to avoid such situations as the now well-known "Let's eat Harry!" in place of "Let's eat, Harry!", but in general one can get away with leaving a comma out.
One trend which has troubled me of late is the tendency to use commas in place of apostrophes, leading to sentences like "The man,s tie had become worn".  This makes no sense.  Please don't do it.
An even more disturbing trend is the multiple comma, particularly when it is used in place of a full stop.  On more than one occassion in the recent past, I have seen my Facebook feed littered with things like the following: "Just watchd the footie,,, Can't believe it [player name] was sent off!!!, , , lol whydo they do dat av nevr seen a ref so bad,", which, frankly, I do not believe I should be forced to read.

3. Brackets.  I don't have a lot to say about brackets, except that, for every open bracket, there should be a matching close bracket.  Brackets are for sidelines, extra information, and tangents; one should be able to remove them and still understand the sentence.  For instance: "The unicorn (which was white, with a golden mane) chewed the grass thoughtfully for some time".  It still makes sense if you remove the bit in brackets.  The difficulty here is that some of us make a mental note that we have entered a bracket, and take our thought volume down a notch every time we do.  We then ratchet it back up when the closing bracket is found; if it does not appear, we end up in silence, and confused.

4. The Colon.  Essentially, this should be used to introduce lists, viz: "I bought three things: a basket, a ball of wool, and a pair of scissors".  On the internet, if you're not sure, do not use it outside this context.

5. The Semicolon.  Like the colon, should only be wielded by those who know what they're doing.  With the more casual approach to punctuation allowed online, if you're not sure whether to use a semi-colon, it is best to use a comma instead.

6. The Question Mark.  This indicates that you asked a question.  It ought, in many ways, to be the simplest form of punctuation to master, but it appears that the internet is no friend of the simple, and far too many times have I seen questions without question marks, and question marks without questions.  The pairing should be as natural as yin and yang, Torville and Dean, or strawberries and cream (and just as pleasant), but (sadly), too often the two are torn asunder, and the rent halves are left alone, bereft.

7. Quotation Marks.  These are the vertical double dash thingies, not the vertical single dash, although the latter can also be used for quotations. They indicate that someone has said something.  For example: 'Right in the middle of the room, she stood up and said "Well, I have never heard the like!"'.  They can often be omitted in text messages.  The important thing to understand, however, is that they can be used to imply that someone has said something which isn't true; they are frequently employed by journalists to quote sources and indicate that some truth is being concealed.  So, one could say 'She told me she was "going to bed"', to imply that perhaps she was doing something other than sleeping.
Now the point here is that, if you put a word or phrase in quotation marks, particularly if you are trying to promote something, you end up making it look untrue.  For instance, 'Shop here!  We have the "best" prices in town!' may be intended as an advertisement, but what it means to the grammarian is that someone once said the prices were the best, but probably that was the owner's mother.

Grammar is (and I quote Wikipedia) the set of structural rules that govern the composition of sentences, phrases, and words in any given natural language.  In other words, it tells you how to put words together so that sentences make sense.
Now, I have a number of bugbears here (as you might expect).  Most of these apply to real life as well as the internet; but whereas in real life you can generally disguise them with a bit of an accent, their use online is inappropriate.

1. 'I saw' and 'I have seen'.  Not 'I seen', and not 'I have saw'.  Yes, it matters.  Other examples include:
'I went' and 'I have gone'; 'I did' and 'I have done'.  It's all to do with past participles; you do not need to be familiar with the technicalities (although it's worth it for the sheer joy of knowing), but please take a few moments to memorise the rules.

2. 'I would have', not 'I would of'.  It's an accent thing.  People sound like they're saying 'of', but really, it's 'have'.  Trust me.  You get away with more in conversation.  You could say "I carried on disregardless" and the other person will think "disregardless?", but you will have moved on disregardless and it will all blow over.

3. Text messaging is a special case; email and Facebook stati are not.  In texting, you don't always have the time and space for the full 'subject-verb-object', and it is sometimes acceptable to omit one or more elements.  For instance 'I have your pen and I will bring it round to you later' can justifiably be texted as 'Have ur pen, will bring 2u l8r' (although if you have a pen, the preference would, naturally, be to write a letter).  Likewise 'I will be there in 10 minutes' can be shortened to 'Wiv u in 10'.  These are fine.
However, in emails, please use full sentences (possible exceptions can be made for emails sent from mobiles, as one can only type on those wee keypads for a short time before one gets Carpal Issues).

I trust the above guide has clarified some things for you all.  As we said at the beginning, the aim is not to start getting sniffy over every typing error and omitted article, but it is to be hoped that communication can be made increasingly clear (note: not increasingly clearer, which is a second order derivative and does little to add meaning, and much to make the user look a bit dense, or pompous).

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Ah, a fellow pedant :)

But you missed my pet hate: 'definately'. Shudder/cringe. Like fingernails being scraped down the blackboard of my soul.