Language under cyber-attack?

THE WRITTEN word first appeared in Egypt and Samaria about 3200 BCE. English as we might recognize it was in use by about the 16 th century. The use of written language was a skill reserved to the elite for most of that time. The ability to read and write has only been truly widespread for about 100 years. Given all of this, it is perhaps no wonder that we seem to live in constant fear of its loss.

There was a humorous e-mail virus warning which made the rounds of the Internet again recently. First written in 1999, “The Pluperfect Virus” ( is a satire that warns that a new virus named strunkenwhite “returns e-mail messages that have grammatical or spelling errors” and is “deadly accurate in its detection abilities, unlike the dubious spell checkers that come with word processing programs.” I would have thought that everyone realized it was a joke. A leading anti-virus company, has it listed as a hoax on its website though, so I wonder.

The serious side of this piece, however, is the widespread belief that written language is on the decline and that e-mail is to blame.

I don’t know of any real studies on this issue, however I don’t believe that e-mail is to blame for the poor grammar of the general population any more than it is for my own grammatical failings. In my opinion, the telephone has played the more significant part in this situation. The quality of formal writing has been in decline for many years because of increasing disuse of writing of any kind.

While many bemoan e-mail as the cause of poor writing skills, I believe that e-mail has actually created a renaissance in writing that no one was ready for. Since the advent of e-mail, people who formerly went weeks without communicating in writing are now compelled to do so on a daily basis. It’s no surprise that when writing is required after a long time if disuse, problems are apparent. I can’t help but wonder if Canadian Press’ (CP) recent return to using “u” in colour was in part driven by complaints from people who are writing more themselves and were annoyed by CP’s previous spelling choices.

I would not be so optimistic as to suggest that having to communicate in writing every day will magically make everyone a writer. But I do think that the renewed discussion and increased writing demands, will encourage us to dig in the recesses of our brains for long-abandoned style, grammar and spelling information. It might even generate some interest in writing courses and stylebooks.

It is also worth noting in our collective despair that just as there are different forms of spoken communication (lectures, debates, conversation) there are different kinds of e-mail.

The first is formal communication: notes to people you’ve never met or communicated with before and reasoned arguments on e-mail lists. Judge these as harshly as you like. They should be held to all the same standards as any other writing.

There is another, more common form of e-mail, however. Conversation. It’s a slow one, but it’s a conversation nonetheless. While grammar and spelling remain important for the sake of clarity, it has its own style and rules.

The relaxed style helps personalize a fairly impersonal medium. The free use of deliberate misspelings and the use of smilies (:-)) and other expressive interruptions (<hug>) have little to do with conventional grammar and may even be poor style, but they have the desired effect in most cases. Judicious quoting of previous messages adds both to the conversational nature and to the clarity of the response. Acronyms have been somewhat abused, but that’s been a problem in all forms of language for many years. (It is true in spades in the church.)

Both e-mail styles, however, still require more thought than a phone conversation. The next time you dip your pen into the silicon inkwell, flex your writing muscle a bit. Consider the context and then take some joy in the written word.

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