the main points
- Writing is something we learn primarily from an educational authority, rather than a layered social context.
- We gain a sense of the writer’s personality when they’re also available for use as “scare quotes” and Ironic Capitals.
- A period can reinforce a negative message but undermine a positive one.
- Younger people may not enjoy older people misusing their particular trendy words.
It’s an internet tradition, when humour or sarcasm goes astray online, to apologise by saying something like, “You know, it’s just impossible to convey tone in writing.”
But what I’ve noticed as the 2010s come to an end is that this apology isn’t needed as much as it once was — not because people have strangely become fans of misconstrued irony, but because the circumstances aren’t arising as much. Whether through big flourishes like “That’s very ~on brand~” and “y.i.k.e.s.” or subtler ones like “that’s a Bold choice” and “Wowwwww”, we can now convey a full range of emotions in writing.
The reason that we once found speech easier for imparting emotions isn’t an inherent property of sound waves and voice boxes. Rather, it’s that we’re more used to employing a broad range of styles in face-to-face communication. An expansive palette of possibilities lets us convey nuanced meta-messages like solidarity (by converging towards someone else’s linguistic style at a given moment) and double meaning (by noticing when someone is saying doesn’t match with they say it).
Being more open and flexible with language rewards us with the capacity to convey the humour and irony and double meaning in writing that we’ve been craving for so long.
Sometimes the “how” is purely derived from context (saying “What a beautiful day!” when facing a windowful of sleet), but many times paralinguistic cues like intonation or facial expression also help us get there (saying “Wonderful”, in a flat, clipped tone). This tension between the “what” and the “how” forms the “double” part of “double meaning”, and from it a listener can infer gloriously complex sentiments like humour or irony or reluctance or passive-aggression.
Writing, by contrast, is something we learn primarily from an educational authority, rather than a layered social context. This authority teaches us a single way of spelling and punctuating and choosing words, a formal style that aims to remove the author as much as possible from the text. Just as news anchors are trained to report the news, not the news, young essay writers are told not to begin their book reports with “I really liked (or hated) this book.”
A formal, disembodied style does have a place in the pantheon of linguistic genres. But the problem with this tradition is that it’s a jealous god — rather than say, “Here is a style that’s useful sometimes,” it says, “Here is the only correct way to write, and any variation from it is Bad and Wrong.”
Richest social parts of a conversation
But subjectivity is sometimes exactly what we want. I don’t need National Geographic to start replacing its photojournalism with selfies, but when my friends go on vacation, I want to see the trip filtered through their eyes — their semi-ironic selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower or the tiny cafe they found on a rainy afternoon means more to me than a generic landmark photo, however beautiful. What’s more, if there’s only one style, there’s no opportunity for meaning-doubling or style-shifting, the richest social parts of a conversation.
As writing has been expanding online into the informal conversational domains where speech used to be primary, the generations who spent their formative years online started expanding writing’s muted emotional range. Sure, quotation marks can indicate reported speech and capitals can indicate proper nouns, but we gain a sense of the writer’s personality when they’re also available for use as “scare quotes” and Ironic Capitals.
Similarly, in contexts like texting or chat, where the default way of breaking up utterances is with a new line or a new message, the period takes on connotations of seriousness and formality, a slight deepening of the voice at the end of a sentence. Thus, a period can reinforce a negative message (“that’s rough.”) but undermine a positive one (“that’s fine.”). The latter style reads to many younger people as passive-aggressive, a sign that the writer could have used a sincere exclamation mark (“that’s fine!”) but decided not to.
We’ve been learning to see writing not as a way of asserting our intellectual superiority, but as a way of listening to one another better.
Yes, it’s a lot of meaning to infer from a dot, but it’s socially useful to be able to convey a nuanced level of reluctance, one that’s not strong enough to be worth registering as a full complaint but is nonetheless not quite full-throated enthusiasm.
In other words, we’ve been learning to write in ways that communicate our tone of voice, not just our mastery of rules. We’ve been learning to see writing not as a way of asserting our intellectual superiority, but as a way of listening to one another better. We’ve been learning to write not for power, but for love.
The closest to love that an external list of rules can offer is a feeling of besieged camaraderie, a unity against a perceived common enemy. But it’s a miserly form of affection to care for some people only by despising others. It’s a perilous form of community, where your membership is always conditional, where you know that your supposed friends in matching “I’m silently correcting your grammar” T-shirts are liable to turn on you without constant vigilance. If rules vigilantism is all that a love of language can offer, we might as well also consider “Mean Girls” a guide to healthy relationships.
But language snobbery is not inevitable. It’s not that people who cling to lists of language rules don’t want love as well. It’s that they’ve been sold a false bill of goods for how to get it. In high school English classes and writing manuals, we’ve been told that being “clear” and “correct” in language will help people understand us.
But understanding doesn’t come from insisting on a list of rules, shouting the same thing only louder like a hapless monolingual tourist in a foreign country. Understanding comes from meeting other people where they are, like being willing to use gestures and a handful of semi-remembered words and yes, even to look like a fool, to bridge a language barrier with laughter and humility.
Nuances of humour or ambivalence are impossible to write
We’ve been taught the lie that homogeneity leads to understanding, when in truth understanding comes from better appreciating variety. If I write a sentence like “My brand is strong.” using the default settings on my phone’s keyboard, I look like a corporate sell-out, but if I can write it with subversive capitalisation, like “my Brand is Strong”, I can convey something quite different, a signal that I’m not taking myself too seriously, that I have an ordinary internet user’s ironic ambivalence towards the idea of a personal ‘brand’.
Having emotionally real conversations takes vulnerability. In a world where so many of us have been taught to write according to a list of rules, disregarding them is a way of extending trust. As an internet linguist, I often hear from younger people that they want to help the older people in their lives understand a fuller, more flexible range of expression, rather than assume that complex nuances of humour or ambivalence are impossible to write.
Younger people may not enjoy older people muscling in on and misusing their particular trendy words (see the recent driving into the ground of “OK boomer”), but they do desperately want to be able to have emotionally real conversations in text with the people who matter to them.
When we write in ways that a red pen wouldn’t approve of, we give our interlocutors the chance to show that they care more about us as a living human presence than they do about some long-dead or absent authority, by not derailing the conversation with moralising “corrections” — or better yet, by replying with the same vulnerability. In return, being more open and flexible with language rewards us with the capacity to convey the humour and irony and double meaning in writing that we’ve been craving for so long.
— Gretchen McCulloch is the author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language and co-host of the podcast Lingthusiasm.