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Rhodri Marsden

Journalist and musician Rhodri Marsden has been addressing common technology problems by stripping away the jargon and enlisting the help of readers in his Cyberclinic column in The Independent for the past two years.

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The net's impact on the Queen's English

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:16 pm
There's a post over at Everything2 which addresses the slow erosion of the proper order of fullstops, commas and quotation marks in online discussion. Apparently, keen to avoid mistakes being reproduced when placing code in quotation marks, geeks have taken to always putting fullstops and commas outside the quotation marks regardless of context. Serious stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. It's the kind of thing that might get Lynne Truss worked up into a frenzy, but it's something of a surprise to see the story gaining over 1300 thumbs-up over at – particularly when far worse breaches of the English language occur on every corner of the internet on a daily basis.

I've been doing something of a study on this topic in the past few weeks – well, I say study, it's more like spending idle moments messing about on the internet. Omegle is a website that puts you in touch, anonymously, with another random visitor, and allows you to pass the time of day chatting to them about whatever topics take your fancy. For some reason I find it slightly compelling – despite the fact that the likelihood of me having a wide-ranging, mind-expanding conversation is incredibly slim; by my rough estimates around 25% don't speak English at all, and another 50% don't speak it as a first language. But that 50% seem to eclipse the remaining 25% of us in their standards of written conversation.

I know it's only a ridiculous chat room and analysis of its contents doesn't really stand up to any great scrutiny, but in the weeks I've been wandering over and trying it, I've developed a foolproof way of ensuring that you're going to end up talking to someone with a brain, and sadly it involves standards of English grammar. My opening gambit is generally: "Hello." Note the capital letter and the fullstop. If the reply comes back with either a capital letter, or a punctuation mark of some kind, I reckon I'm about 75% likely to have a conversation that doesn't subside into urgent enquiries about whether I might be feeling horny. The vast majority of respondents type "hi" – which generally prompts me to disconnect, which I know is slightly brutal, but you can be around 90% certain that "hi" is unlikely to be followed up by anything of substance.

People who ask "Where are you from?" are the kind I don't mind passing the time of day with, but you're far more likely to get someone saying "from?" or "where?" (or, worse, "from" or "where".) Then there's the dreaded "ASL?", or "asl?" or "asl" – an abbreviation for "age? sex? location?" – which is the most bludgeoning opening gambit imaginable, and one that I'd dearly like to see its users try and deploy in a bar or a nightclub. There's only one group of people who ask "asl", and that's men who need to establish with some urgency that the person they are talking to is female, so they can begin to construct elaborate sexual fantasies while stabbing at their keyboard with sweaty fingers.

My conclusions, shot through with exceptions, caveats and general fallibility, are that nice, intelligent, interesting people can spell, and they use capital letters and punctuation. Everyone else is a dribbling cyber-sexual predator. Probably.


nalsa wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:25 pm (UTC)
Quotation marks is one thing; correct use of punctuation in parentheses is another, which also falls foul of the geek language logistics trap. I'd hate to see the arguments over that.
charleston wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:42 pm (UTC)
I am cross about full stops and quotation marks, always have been. I know the correct way to do it, but sometimes that messes with my logic, as the second one seems to have strayed into the next sentence. Can somebody sort it out please.
carsmilesteve wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:44 pm (UTC)
Can somebody sort it out please?

fixed :)
liadnan wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:50 pm (UTC)
I don't think Lynne Truss would get that fussed since, as the next comment points out, the post on everything2 is wrong in terms of British usage.
rmarsden wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:54 pm (UTC)
It's always amusing to see people hastily rewriting comments on posts devoted to correct use of English ;)
liadnan wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:56 pm (UTC)
I thought about not bothering but decided it would be too embarrassing to leave it as gibberish.
bopeepsheep wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:59 pm (UTC)
Missing full stop deliberate? ;-)
rmarsden wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 02:24 pm (UTC)
For some reason I think of emoticons as fullstop replacements. I know there are no rules. Let's make them up as we go along.
mcgazz wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 02:43 pm (UTC)
xkcd had a strip on that topic a while ago. I'd agree with you - the usual punctuation mark would knacker the emoticon - in the emoticon world, a full stop or question mark followed by :) probably means something totally different to :) on its own.

Similarly, I'm against printing braille on anaglypta.
cfinnie wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 03:07 pm (UTC)
OMG! Now I'm really in trouble. I had no idea there was a whole protocol to using emoticons with punctuation.
bopeepsheep wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:58 pm (UTC)
... someone saying "from?" or "where?" (or, worse, "from" or "where".)

Hmmmm. That should say ... someone saying "from?" or "where?" (or, worse, "from" or "where"). Have you succumbed to an attack of Skitt's Law?
You're guilty too
tominlondon wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 02:41 pm (UTC)
"fullstop" is not a word.
Re: You're guilty too
rmarsden wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 03:11 pm (UTC)
Sentences also begin with capital letters, Tom.
wardytron wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 02:54 pm (UTC)
Where should I go if I want to meet a nice, intelligent, interesting dribbling cyber-sexual predator?
cfinnie wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 03:05 pm (UTC)
I shouldn't think that would be much of a challenge. I recommend online dating sites.
Then, of course, there's American usage
cfinnie wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 03:02 pm (UTC)
We always put commas and periods (aka full stops) inside quotation marks--whether or not they are related to the quoted material. However, I generally find that people tend to use whatever they've seen the most often--not what they were taught at school (if they were paying any attention to that at all anyway). Because many people in the U.S. have worked in the U.K. or with people there, or are not native American English speakers, usage here is an increasing muddle. I don't blame it exclusively on the Internet. My neighbor notes that texting seems to be changing the writing patterns of her young daughter though.

Languages do evolve. And one trend is to close up compound words like full stop into fullstop. This is, in part, to eliminate the profusion of hyphens in compound modifiers--which few people know how to use correctly either.
Re: Then, of course, there's American usage
bogwart16 wrote:
Thursday, 11 June 2009 at 08:40 pm (UTC)
I love the way that Americans - and it's always Americans - attempt to excuse their maladroitness with the English language by claiming squatters rights via evolution.

Since when does illiteracy equate to evolution?
Or deliberate change
cfinnie wrote:
Thursday, 11 June 2009 at 08:46 pm (UTC)
Actually, Daniel Webster, who considered himself an American patriot, changed American spelling and usage to differentiate it from (at the time) the King's English. Though I can't disagree with you that many of my countrymen and women are poor at the use of proper language, some of us to hew to correct usage as done in the U.S.

As for evolution, do you still use the same language as Chaucer? Or Shakespeare? I doubt it. And they were both, if I recall my literature classes correctly, English.
Re: Or deliberate change
bogwart16 wrote:
Thursday, 11 June 2009 at 09:01 pm (UTC)
Fair comment. I know about Webster's reasons and, for what it's worth, I would have to agree that some of the changes make better sense.

Language evolves all the time, as you point out. There are many, many versions of English beside English English and American English. What irks me is the number of your countrymen who insist that 'their' way is the right way.

I take part in many forums where the majority presence is American, and even though most of these people are physically mature, have families and hold down jobs it bugs the hell out of me when they seek clarification of a simple statement.

And for the teens, of course, literacy is something of which they are jealous but they cannot cope with that emotion, so it turns to hostility and aggression and epithets like 'Grammar Nazi'.

Thanks for your response.
I cannot deny it
cfinnie wrote:
Thursday, 11 June 2009 at 09:17 pm (UTC)
Americans, on the whole, are not very well educated. Even those with advanced degrees tend to have pretty specialized knowledge. This means that they can still be horribly ill-informed on topics outside of that one narrow zone. Our news media worsens the problem with a focus on pop stories and shallow, sensational coverage that, frankly, rarely approaches what the BBC does. In addition, our news coverage is almost exclusively on the U.S. So viewers know little about what is going on outside our shores unless they take the trouble, as I do, to get another perspective.

And you're unfortunately right. Despite this, we tend to go about beating our chests and declaring our superiority. You would not believe the howls from the chest-thumpers because our new president is not engaging in this awful behavior abroad. I find it embarrassing and depressing. And not a little frightening as we've shown over the last eight years just how much damage this combination of hubris and stupidity can wreak. It goes far beyond whatever violence we have done to the English language--which I admit is considerable.
psychopixi wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 04:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you for introducing me to Omegle. It's an interesting way to kill some spare time. I have quickly discovered that 'hi' as an opening line means that the stranger is either a cyber-sex freak, or not at all familiar with the English language. I've actually had some interesting conversations with people from all over the world, so I would advise people to wait past the 'hi' and see if the next line is 'asl' and then disconnect.
rmarsden wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 04:47 pm (UTC)
Not at all. Don't get too hooked :)
I spy with my little i
twelve_three wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 06:10 pm (UTC)
I thought it skillful to write as you speak, but now realise it is better to be able to write properly, if you got the foundation set right then there should be no stopping you writing properly and coherently, however most people do not set a foundation but wish to reach the sky. It goes back to parable of the sower about seeds landing in good soil and having manifold increase in crop and those that landed on rocks or those that fell by the road or fell among thorns, which for various reason did not succeed. But I must admit when I type without the help of spell checker I am inclined to write I with a small i, something I picked up from kids these days, because I thought it cool. This reminder should stop me from henceforth from this style by illiterates.
Re: I spy with my little i
mippy wrote:
Monday, 29 June 2009 at 11:14 am (UTC)
I write as I speak, but then I tend to say odd words when I do. And I still can't pronounce 'turkey escalopes' correctly.
Losing sight of the content?
ltjoboyle wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 08:58 pm (UTC)
I agree that most chat rooms probably are prowled by sex-crazed guys, and as such you are unlikely to engage in interesting conversation with them, however I think it is sad to assume that if you do not correctly use grammar then you are unintelligent or unlikely to be interesting. I think that the best way to judge a conversation is on the content, rather than the way it is presented.
Normally, when I start a conversation with somebody, it is not my intention to show I understand the English language. I would also hope that whoever I am talking to also has better things on their mind, otherwise I fear that our conversation could give watching paint dry a run for its money on just how exciting it would be.
I don't have any problem with you saying that there should be more of an effort made to use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, however the fact that you disconnect when somebody says 'hi' just astounds me. It seems such a shame to judge a person on something so minute an issue, and honestly if I ever happened to speak to anybody who would react in a similar fashion, then I would be grateful to be saved from the experience of communicating with them if they just disconnected.
This maybe came across as a more aggressive a comment than I meant it to. Really I just wanted to say that you should judge a conversation based on its content, and perhaps what is really killing the art of conversation is the suffocating focus on grammar, punctuation and spelling.
Re: Losing sight of the content?
rmarsden wrote:
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 10:19 pm (UTC)
Obviously the post was slightly tongue in cheek - there are enough caveats dropped in the last para - but as far as Omegle is concerned, the comment from psychopixiabove</a> does back me up on this.

There's no question that ideas and content can be rich and interesting even with bad spelling and grammar; I'm no grammar fascist, not least because I make enough errors of my own - but I suspect that I'm not the only one who finds that badly written English distracts from the point being made. And, in a strange way, it just isn't... well, sexy.
mippy wrote:
Monday, 29 June 2009 at 11:13 am (UTC)
It really irritates me that it's now OK to write entirely in lower-case on the internet. I feel my prejudices telling me that they're either trying hard to be trendy, or are a bit thick.


Mippy (BA (Hons) Linguistics)
bothwill wrote:
Tuesday, 9 March 2010 at 01:00 pm (UTC)
You have a good point, this is partially one of the reasons I don't spend any time on chat rooms, there is nothing for me to learn there. Few years ago when I was preparing for my ielts writing exam I thought it would be a good idea to enter a chat room and have a conversation with a native English speaker. It didn't went as planned, all I got was abbreviations and a dull talk...
joolyelan wrote:
Thursday, 26 January 2012 at 08:37 am (UTC)
You have wrote a good post, I appreciate it.


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