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Impersonal computer screens invite no-holds-barred communication that is, paradoxically, very personal. Author Constance Hale discusses the impact of the Internet and other new technologies on American English. Read Full Article.

Writers today must navigate the shifting verbal currents of the post-Gutenberg era. Not only has the Internet allowed us to introduce more new words than most of us can count, it has also changed the way we use them — the way we read, the way we write, the way we think.

Take, for example, email. When the first “electronic mail” was sent by Ray Tomlinson in 1972, he barely realized what he was inventing. It took 20 years for the term to be fixed in the lexicon, though few agreed on a spelling of E-mail, e-mail or email. Among other common terms nonexistent a generation ago are cyberspace, blog, webspace and listserv.

Not all the words spawned on the Internet are welcome additions to the language. Email stuck, but e-commerce has faded along with dot-com stock prices. For every name of a new function (such as Delete), there seems to be a buzzword that should be banished (such as functionality). For every good metaphor (such as bandwidth as an image for attention span), there is a bad cliché (such as information economy — remember that?). For every witty wordplay (such as spam), there is an alphabet soup of empty initialisms (take your pick: ASP, ISP, VOIP).

Email is more than just an example of this new crop of words. It signals an altogether new kind of communication. David Crystal, the Welsh linguist and author of Language and the Internet, believes the development of “computer-mediated discourse” is as significant as the development of speech and writing.

Merging a telegram, a memo and a good long chat, email is more artful than conversation: Alone at your screen, you are able to reflect and compose; at the same time, you sense the presence of others and await their rapid responses. The impersonal computer screen seems, paradoxically, to invite no-holds-barred communication that is very personal.

Writing online is often on-the-fly and fresh. A well-written digital missive gets to the point quickly with evocative words, short paragraphs and plenty of white space. Internet writing puts a premium on clarity, brevity and humor. Subject lines and links play cleverly with words, as artful as haiku.

In online dialogue, spelling and punctuation are loose and playful. On Web pages, in chat rooms and across blogs, the rules of writing loosen as tone and style become more informal.

New tools influence the way we write. They are unambiguously great for the world of letters: Computers make it easier to revise, revise and revise again. Search engines give us a world of information. PDAs, pagers and cell phones with digital messaging force us to write shorter, tighter, terser. Other tools can help when they’re not irritating: software reminds us that our email diction is profane, our spelling and grammar need correcting — and that there are better ways to organize oral presentations.

A. J. Liebling remarked in 1960 that, “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Today, anyone who has access to the Internet owns a press. But it takes more than the Internet to turn you and me into the next Liebling. As always, it takes imagination, discipline and humanity to transform language into literature.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • The New Hacker’s Dictionary A collection of slang terms used by various subcultures of computer hackers.
  • Abate, Frank, and Elizabeth J. Jewell, eds. The New Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001.
  • Branwyn, Gareth, ed. Jargon Watch. San Francisco: Wired Books, Inc., 1997.
  • Hale, Constance, and Jessie Scanlon. Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 1999.
  • O’Conner, Patricia T., and Stewart Kellerman. You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Books, 2002.
Constance Hale grew up in Hawaii and returns there often in her writing. She left the islands to get a bachelors degree from Princeton and a masters from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley. She has worked as a reporter and editor at the Oakland Tribune, Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, Wired, and Health. Her freelance work has appeared in many Bay Area publications, as well as in Honolulu, HotWired, and the Atlantic Monthly. She has written two popular books on language, Sin and Syntax and Wired Style, and has been dubbed "Marion the Librarian on a Harley, or E. B. White on acid."

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