Monday, July 13, 2009

Precision of Language

Lois Lowry might not have sparked the idea in my head, might not have begun a lifelong desire for linguistic precision & clarity of intention, but she did give it name. It's just that the quote from The Giver is so much better than "You watch your phraseology".

Perhaps I should clarify. I am not a stickler for grammar per se (just look at how I place punctuation marks). This isn't a rant about how kids these days can't spell for shit even though the computer is meant to do it for them. This is a comment on writing on the web and the sustained difficulty of articulating with clarity. And a question as to how to resolve the issue, how to achieve some manner of easy understanding through our community writing as it is becoming such a large part of our lives.

The Internet, cell phones, &c have spawned several grapholects. The most prevalent and sustained being 1337, lolspeak, and TXT. They are not exclusive, fixed, or, really, even fully defined. They all had their origins and they have all extended beyond the initial conditions that made the meaningful and necessary.

Leet was used to avoid text filters that could not recognize the combination of letters, numbers, and symbols as meaningful text the way that a person could. Hence the need to constantly evolve and adapt. As it entered gaming culture and the mainstream it became even more convoluted as more and more people began to use individualized combinations to articulate words and phrases.

TXT developed out of the pay per character beginnings of SMS messaging and the difficulty of articulating that one is "laughing out loud" via a string of characters (especially when one wasn't physically laughing at all).

LOLspeak developed absurdly from the difficulty in translating the magnificently difficult grammar and syntax of Cat Language into English.

Combining all three with plain, old English written hastily by people who have relied on spell checks their entire lives and not given over to any editing and you have one of the main issues (at least with clarity of thought) of the Internet. Add in the difficulties inherent in a distributed conversation with multiple people via both realtime and various tape delays and the internet can become a quagmire of confusion & misunderstanding.

Now, personally, I have only really taken to the absurdity of lolspeak not joining the texting revolution soon enough to ever have a need to really abbreviate my thoughts and by the time I was writing on the web I had no real desire to be a n00b in any of the l337 forums. But that is precisely the issue, isn't it? The spectrum of grammar and style of writing on the internet runs the gamut from Victorian formalism to infant scribbling. We individually adopt various acronyms, unique spellings, verb conjugations, abbreviations, etc as our own and we infuse them into our writing. But there is no rule. There is no standard. And there really shouldn't be.

The standard should be that a missive is easily understood by all who will read it. This means that one writes differently on a personal Twitter feed than on a corporate blog. That the grammar and syntax are necessarily different for the audience. But that implies that one knows ones audience, or that one should accept and expect their capacity to understand (or fail to understand). Should the uninitiated really be the ones to which everyone else has to pander lest they do not fully grasp the meaning of the cryptic text? Or should there be an open acknowledgement that one must learn and conform to the rules of the digital space?

And then there is the issue of formatting. Even if there was some means of ensuring that everyone wrote in a grammar and style that was clear and precise the format of most forms of internet conversations make clarity, once again, difficult. The Microsyntax community is working on establishing a grammar that will be de rigueur for services like Twitter (and will likely spread out from there if it can really take hold). Hopefully it takes off. It might clear up some of the difficulties like so many failing to understand the meaning of "RT" and other various issues. One of my pet peeves is with comment streams. In a conversation with more than one individual a reply needs to be articulated specifically to the comment that it is replying to lest it lead to unnecessary confusion. Nesting comments is one means of solving the issue (though it often leads to digressions and points being lost in the shuffle). "@" conventions help, but are not universally adopted and not ideal. In a live conversation you usually don't have to name the person you are responding to before responding, it is implicit in tone, body language, &c. Ideally there would be some way to replicate the implicit nature of a response that doesn't involve naming each person before commenting to them. But if not, at least the convention should be universally adopted.

I guess my problem is that I have noticed sustained confusion throughout various platforms and I don't really have a good solution. Restricting the freedom of the internet to a specific dictionary, a newspeak of "one word to mean one thing", is a terrible idea. It is variety that gives digital writing its refreshing (and often infuriating) character. It's just that now that we as a society are writing much more than ever before I had hoped that we would be better at it.

"We will be judged by too many words. Our sin is poor editing and the failure to remain silent in the face of it all. There was laughter once. Now there are only the broken and post-ironic lulz. I would weep but the emoticon eludes me once again."

- Oscar Wilde

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