Skip to content

From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Whatever the Cost May Be

Preparing for the fight of our life

New Rules, Who Dis?

How we talk online—and why

Carol Percy

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language

Gretchen McCulloch

Riverhead Books

336 pages, hardcover, audiobook, and ebook

I received my copy of Because Internet just in time for the high school girls’ reunion. As a cat-­loving cheapskate who not only still owns a flip phone but just got a new one, I was brooding about the ongoing online silence of our short-term rental property host. A second friend was texting her children during the gaps in a third girl’s anecdotes about grandchildren. Our leader was generalizing about millennials. The most peaceful one of us was taking photos — on an actual camera. I would occasionally derail what I felt was impending dissension with distracting facts, mostly from this book.

In it, the linguist Gretchen McCulloch argues that formal language standards are alive and well, and that electronically mediated communication has simply made informal language more written, more public, and, through an increasing ability to manage our audience’s response, potentially more polite.

With the chapter “Language and Society,” McCulloch draws upon online data to emphasize the heterogeneity of all human communities and the speed of language change. Twitter has multiple registers: slang, like other non-standard usage, is more likely to occur in tweets that @mention others. The social media platform also demonstrates how written slang spreads demographically: “af,” for example, seems to have hopped from Hispanic to African American urban centres before going mainstream. Innovative usage pervades the book. Because that’s how more people do it online these days, McCulloch closes compound words like “lowercase” and explicitly uses lowercase for initialisms like “af” (“as fuck”).

Linguists remind us that teen swearing (like aimless hanging out) peaks in adolescence. Texting teens actually use less internet slang than one might expect, and sociolinguists have found it integrated into the full spectrum of written English, right alongside formal words like “must” and “shall.” And over time, users have been writing with increasing length and complexity — at least in St. Petersburg. McCulloch cites a study of Russian Facebook that claims that “15-year-old users in 2016 wrote more complex posts than users of any age in 2008.” Just like teens, older beer enthusiasts pick up new words early in their online “lifespans”: established accounts tend to retain the older word “aroma,” in contrast to newer accounts’ preference for “S” (“smell”).

The chapter “Internet People” helped me conceptualize conflicts and differences in how my friends use technology. McCulloch, who describes herself as living “in Montreal, but also on the ­internet,” divides us into four groups, depending upon where (and with whom) we first socialized online. Like a handful of my colleagues, I am not only old but an “Old Internet” person. In 1999, I was motivated enough to hand‑code the second web page in our English department; much earlier, I lurked among strangers on an Anglo-­Saxon listserv. But in other respects, I am like my non-academic peers. We “Semi Internet” people go online more for information than socializing, which some of us occasionally do with younger people (and thus occasionally with each other). We all began and continue with email — unlike most “Full Internet People,” who came of age with instant messaging around the turn of the century and used its informal writing to continue interactions with their friends from offline (often during my classes).

McCulloch’s categorizations are simply starting points, of course. As an academic who lives alone, I joined Facebook earlier and more thoroughly than my peers, after being invited by choir buddies and former students. My friends who are parents or social workers text relentlessly with “Post Internet” children, who in turn find privacy in chat or hashtag groups, or use platforms where posts can disappear without a trace, like the dramatic telephone conversations of my youth. Our language online is another index of our internet citizenship. Do we use “lol” or “LOL”? Does it signal laughing out loud, or attitudes ranging from amusement to pseudo-­amusement? It’s perhaps because I don’t “chat” (with anyone) that I don’t use “lol” at all, but I do deploy the smiley face in my more manipulative email. (And I’ve finally stopped spelling it “e‑mail.”)

Like “lol,” the smiley face in both typed and emoji forms helps illustrate how typography and images can approximate tone of voice and gesture, and guide interpretations of electronic messages. Conveying complex emotions and attitudes in writing is not a new challenge. In old-­fashioned epistolary correspondence, writers could enlarge, underline, and circle letters for emphasis. Our typographical strategies have developed along with our keyboards. One has been able to repeat individual letters for expressive lengthening since at least 1848: “yessssss!” McCulloch uses historical corpora (structured collections of electronic texts) to source this strategy in fictional dialogue, but she observes that repeated letters no longer necessarily represent actual speech: “omgggg!”

Other developments have arisen inadvertently. We can STILL emphasize individual words using capital letters — especially words like “NOT,” “ALL,” “YOU,” and “WIN” on Twitter. But using all uppercase became stigmatized as shouting early on, and today all lowercase may be read as passive-aggressive rather than poetic. For younger readers, even a period at the end of a sentence might be quarrelsome (or just plain sad). And I learned, while unsuccessfully attempting to provoke a response from our house rental host, that my smiley face dates me — not only because it isn’t an emoji but also because it has a nose.

For front-line educators and social justice warriors, McCulloch’s perspective may seem narrowly optimistic (or optimistically narrow): she makes just two references to internet trolls. But most readers should appreciate the breadth and depth of her research, entertaining facts, and provocative explanations of almost every internet reference except the title’s use of “because” (look to her blog for that one). As a historical linguistics scholar, I appreciate that she draws on the past and other cultures to support her arguments. We learn about the evolution of “hello” as a telephone greeting, for example. And in the Netherlands, it turns out, Twitter posts containing hashtags are more likely than @replies to be written in the dominant Dutch than in minority dialects. McCulloch even recounts an origin myth for “lol” — supposedly coined by a man from Calgary in a 1980s chat room.

Because Internet constructs the overarching argument that non-standard case and punctuation make online authors equivalent to Dickinson and Cummings in expressing psychological complexities. But are frequent electronic communicators better writers generally? Every genre has its own conventions: students accustomed to writing essays or to interacting electronically might use jargon or sentence fragments in a job application letter. My colleagues who teach composition still expend time and expertise cultivating students’ rhetorical skills along with their standard language.

But McCulloch fruitfully reviews the “politeness” strategies we all use to negotiate our offline relationships, along with the theory that explains the difference between the words (or emoji) we use and the effects we intend. If we need to soften an online confrontation, how can we employ technology’s arsenal of text and images to ensure that friendliness or self-­deprecation is embedded in our message? Her chapter “How Conversations Change” makes us aware of default greetings and conversational pauses; she explains why some younger people see “Dear” as more intimate than formal, and why chat interfaces, which once animated conversations letter by letter, now simply show when someone is typing away.

With its incisive explanations, Because Internet has something to tell anyone interested in language change or conversational miscalibrations (though it could make your grumpy uncle even grumpier). Sometimes three cat emoji in a row might just signal that your friend is still ­listening — or that she’s trying to end the conversation. And those who type the most actual words produce an even higher ratio of polite ones. Ultimately, McCulloch shows, for heavy social lifting, language remains essential.

Carol Percy, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, has written extensively about eighteenth-century women grammarians.