Chris Harman. The Language of the Internet


 Internet Language Rules

The importance of punctuation seems to be diminishing in many of the domains prevalent on the internet, in particular chat rooms and instant messaging programs such as MSN. Sentences rarely start with capital letters, apostrophes are not common and full stops could almost be classed as extinct in these domains. Context is a main reason for this; if you are on MSN you are likely to be talking to friends, people who aren’t likely to care how perfect or imperfect your grammar, spelling, punctuation etc. is. In fact, in this situation, Standard English could be seen as undesirable – you could be labelled a ‘square’ or ‘geek’ for using such formal means of communication in this informal setting. Another reason could be that, if your written utterances make sense to the recipient, why bother punctuating them correctly? The view is that if you can get away with it, you might as well save yourself the time.  

However, punctuation is often present in these settings, just not in the way that we have come to expect. New forms of punctuation have been created. For example, typing whole words in upper case lettering gives the impression of shouting or anger – ‘GO AWAY’ sounds much more dramatic than ‘go away’. Also, placing asterisks around a word puts emphasis on it, as in ‘I am *really* not looking forward to my exams this year’.

Likewise, ‘smileys now play a big part in conveying the mood or tone of online utterances. A smiley is a short sequence of icons that when put together resemble a face. Some of the more obvious examples of this include :) (happy), :( (sad), and ;) (wink). These act as forms of punctuation just as effectively as, for example, an exclamation mark would. You could argue that with so many creative possibilities, smileys make it easier to convey emotions in text than it has ever been before. 

Prescriptivism is the view that one language variety has a higher value than others, and that this ‘higher’ language variety should be used by everyone in the community. This authoritarian attitude can be found on almost any internet message board you care to view. Unlike chat rooms and instant messaging services where the vast majority of content is ‘text speak’, most message boards tend to attract many users who like to type in perfect Standard English, seemingly as a way of establishing themselves as superior to the users who do not use Standard English. Andy Ihnatko said that, “the true purpose of language is to reinforce the divisions between society’s tribes or at least to make things difficult enough to understand so that the riff-raff keeps out”. This view can be applied to message boards. The users who insist upon Standard English at all times only engage in discussions with fellow SE users, and if a user who prefers a more informal, ‘text speak’ style tries to join in they’ll generally be treated with contempt or ‘flamed’. It is a matter of opinion as to who is in the right; are the SE users, often branded as ‘elitists’, to be applauded for using what is deemed as ‘correct’ English, or are they now living in the past by refusing to accept that language, for better or worse, is changing?

As the internet continues to create its own rules and languages, will anyone be brave enough to try and keep track of it? Will there be any attempt to standardise the language as Samuel Johnson did some 250 years ago? Several websites have been created with this intention but only succeed in scratching the surface; such is the scale of the task. It is entirely likely that somewhere in the world, somebody is compiling a list, making it their life’s work to make sense of this strange cyber domain. However, such a list would be painstakingly difficult to create and impossible to complete. The internet changes daily; any attempt to keep up with it would prove to be an uphill struggle.

Copyrighted material




  The Language Revolution

  Internet Language Rules

  A Case Study



  The Language of the Internet

  English Reasserts Its Status




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