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99.9% of Proper Grammar Is Obsolete

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In: Columns > Wide Open

By David Wertheimer

Published on September 17, 2002

[A parody, with thanks to Jeffrey Zeldman. See also "99.9% of Websites Are Obsolete" elsewhere on Digital Web Magazine.]

An equal opportunity disease afflicts nearly every person now on the Web, from the humblest instant messenger to the multi-million-dollar-salaried heads of corporate giants. Cunning and insidious, the disease goes largely unrecognized because it is based on centuries of convention and grammar-school education. Though these users don't know it yet, 99% of the grammar they type is obsolete.

Proper sentence structure may look and work all right, since mainstream publications still use capital letters, subject-verb agreement, and full-length words on a regular basis. But outside these rigid environments, the necessity of all that hoo-hah is already starting to decay.

In the forward-thinking Internet environment, where user preference and societal norms drive innovation, carefully constructed sentences are starting to disappear. As users evolve, becoming accustomed to one another's abbreviations and time constraints, grammar continues to deteriorate.

Depending on needs, the folks on the Internet have taken matters into their own hands, feeding customized "Internet-speak"—a practice elsewhere known as "shorthand." While authors typically treat sophisticated readers to proper grammar on formal Web sites, email gets a condensed version of the original, and instant-messaging fares still worse.

Obviously, grammatical expertise wastes time and money. Neither commodity has been a necessity; civilizations have existed for centuries without formal sentence structure. Besides, these practices fail to solve a problem: Lots of people can't read at a collegiate level. Users are still locked out.

Forward thinking

Peel the skin of any message, from your CEO's internal memo to an IM from Auntie Em. Examine its tortuous grammatical errors, the proprietary acronyms and ill-conceived use of abbreviations—when they're in English at all. It's a wonder such messages are legible.

The messages work because over four or five years of widespread online use users did not merely tolerate non-standard writing; they actually encouraged sloppy authoring and proprietary scripting in an ill-conceived battle to send messages as fast as they received them.

Obviously, stopping to capitalize or punctuate squanders a writer's time at a cost even the most proactive typist may be at a loss to calculate. The bigger the message and the greater its urgency, the easier it is to condense and simplify words and sentences.

What do IMers mean by "g2g?" They mean "got to go," one of many examples of non-standard, proprietary language slowly making it into every online experience. Proper grammar sounds good in theory, but the effort is too high and the practice has always been to do less.

There is no true backward compatibility. There is always a cut-off point. For instance, very few people know how to identify, much less avoid writing, a dangling modifier. By definition, then, those who don't cannot possibly have the same verbal experience as folks who recognize the most arcane of grammatical laws.

Authors and communicators who strive for proper grammar inevitably choose a level beyond which they will make no effort. To support that rule of thumb, they layer their text with a series of clauses, phrases and terms that add weight to every statement. In so doing, these writers further increase the girth of their text, pump up the load on their servers, and ensure that the race against mouthfuls of extraneous words will continue until they run out of time.

While some users undercut their own understandability trying to ensure that even the most strict grammarian sees their work in pristine form, others have decided that only one communication mode matters. An increasing amount of writing relies on shorthand familiar only to AOL Instant Messenger readers, and sometimes only on LiveJournal.

On the Web, the only constant is change. Factor in the increasingly widespread use of non-traditional Internet devices, and the notion of typing to the standards of tight-fisted grammarians at the expense of busy contacts and one's own free time starts looking like the brain-dead decision it is.

Abbreviations make it possible to type short messages for all devices as easily and quickly as for just one. Between the spiraling time commitments of full sentences and the futile efforts of writing for people who can't read well, online shorthand provides the only approach to online communication that makes a lick of sense.

Neither time-wasting editorial techniques nor the deliberate decision to maintain grammatical correctness will help today's writers working in tomorrow's reading environment or thriving in the ever-changing world beyond the printed book. If these practices continue, costs and complexities will only escalate until none but the most empty-scheduled can afford to communicate.

But the abstruse period of authoring is dying as you read these grammatically windy words, taking countless sentences down with it. If you type online with specificity, the bell tolls for you.

The disease

Early in a student's education, he or she learns the phrase: "Garbage In, Garbage Out." Put simply, in the world of English, if you write your sentence correctly, it works. If you write it incorrectly, it fails. Languages don't merely encourage this, they demand it.

Among the first things an online user learns is that speed helps determine the effectiveness of communication. Start with a high thought, high quality sentence, and the result will be full, but slow. Try to write too windily and the end result won't be worth reading. You can turn a long thought into an abbreviation, but you can't convert a slow comment into a high speed web statement.

Lax to the point of absurdity, online writers gobble up long phrases without a hiccup, in most cases displaying the reconfigured phrase as if it were authored correctly. This laxity has encouraged readers and writers alike to develop bad habits of which they are largely unaware. At the same time, it has turned true English into newspeak.

Those who do not respect a tool are unlikely to use it correctly. Consider the following snippet, lifted from the text lines of a Web site game with online chat, and reprinted here in all its warty glory:

Hi gl / ty gl2u2 / nr / gg

The nonsensical "gl" is an abbreviation for "Good luck, my new friend"-a shortening that gets repeated thousands of times a day on that site, thanks to a highly efficient gaming community. Still, this text may look familiar to you. It may even resemble something you yourself would write. Combined with an appropriate context, the simpler, more structural statements above will do exactly what the cumbersome grammar does, while saving server and visitor bandwidth and easing the transition to speed communication, replacing this text:

"Hello and good luck, my new friend." "Thank you, and good luck to you, too." "Nice roll." "Good game."

(Backgammon, if you're wondering.)

As new users come online, they are becoming increasingly loose in what they expect from a conversation, and thus increasingly tolerant of broken rules. "Garbage in, garbage out" is beginning to take hold in the world of IM and email, making knowledge of web standards a waste for anyone who values time over exactness.

The damage is not irreparable. We can design and build text a better way that works across numerous communication platforms, solving the problems of built-in obsolescence and user lockout while paving the way toward a far more useful, more accessible, and more speedily shared grammar.

The cure to this disease may be found in a core set of commonly supported abbreviations collectively referred to as "IM-speak." By learning to communicate in the same way, we can guarantee the forward compatibility of discussions between young Web-savvy kids and geriatric surfers alike.

"Write once, publish everywhere," the promise of the Internet, is more than wishful thinking: it is being achieved today, all day, every day. But the message has not yet reached many working authors, and text is still being written on the quicksand of hefty grammatical rules.

The cure

After a long struggle, we can finally employ techniques that guarantee the interpretation of our new grammar.

The newspeak of the Internet will allow readers and writers alike to:

got it? kewl

g2g

l8r

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David Wertheimer is the owner of User Savvy, an Internet usability and strategy consultancy. He lives and works in New York City.

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