Almost anyone who cares about language and knows about or uses the Internet has been guilty at one time or another of demonizing the world wide web for its effects on the English language. “The Internet makes it easy for people, including professional writers, to publish writing publicly without editing.” “The Internet encourages casual writing and doesn’t reinforce proper writing skills.” “Students would write better if they weren’t on Facebook all the time.” It’s easy to blame the Internet and say that if it didn’t exist, language would be on solid ground.
Let’s be realistic, though. We love the Internet. Very few people would like to go back to a time without email, instant messaging, video conferencing, or LOLCats. Oh, LOLCats! The world wide web is here and here to stay. Rather than focus on how degraded we think the language is becoming, we should be working on understanding how to use the Internet to make writing better. This can be achieved by using tools to improve English education as well as accepting and distinguishing between casual textspeak and proper, written English, while encouraging more writing and more reading.
It is important to note that many of the writing errors we see aren’t necessarily because of the Internet. Most mistakes already existed, only becoming more obvious with the increased use of the world wide web and other communication technologies, like texting. When we recognize this, other causes of language degradation enter the picture. Many are more systemic than Internet use and have been issues for decades, including (but not limited to) what is effectively stagnation in K–12 English reading and writing proficiency. (See the long-term, national data on reading and writing. Note, especially, middle and high school averages.)
To improve writing on the Internet, we need to improve writing in general. This must happen in the classroom, early and often. There are several great web tools to assist educators in this endeavor, of which Grammarly.com, an online editing and teaching tool for writing, is only one. Other helpful resources include:
- interactive guides like those from ReadWriteThink;
- community forums and discussion boards, like Grammarly Answers and English Forums;
- quality word tools, such as Grammarly Words (a dictionary and thesaurus aimed at helping to choose the best words, not just different ones); and
- traditional teaching materials like those from The National Writing Project and The Schreyer Institute.
However, there is no escaping that for the most effective improvement, quality English and writing education needs to become a political and social priority.
Also, we must admit that, just as there are back alleys on the Web where English gets kicked around, abused and left to die (check out any YouTube comments section), there are also many places where correct language is still revered (see, especially, serious blogs and/or news sources, such as the New York Times) and many more places where the quality of the language is what you make of it; that is, both casual and more formal language styles are supported (Facebook and many other social networks are good examples). It is due to blogs, forums, and social networks that people are writing more than ever before. This is a good thing. Furthermore, the Internet is an equalizer; people from all strata of society are free to explore various kinds of writing as never before. This is a great thing.
We should let these communities thrive as they will, discouraging intellectual finger-pointing and encouraging context-appropriate writing along the way. However, we do need to teach people how to differentiate between informal, sometimes dialectal textspeak and the formal, more standard writing, ideal for public and professional writing. This includes how and when to use which.
Kimberly Joki is a language-loving melomaniac bursting with wanderlust and a desire to cook good food for good people. She manages the social media presence for Grammarly.com out of the company’s Kiev office.