The Illiterate Internet

Increasingly, browsing the web or reading email becomes an exercise in frustration. More and more, it becomes necessary to stop and analyze in depth just what the author of some piece of text actually means. There is nothing more frustrating than opening up a document and then having to apply the principles of a logic puzzle in order to make heads or tails of it.

I’m not referring to the rampant use of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) and various other common abbreviations used in informal speech. After all, instant messaging and quick notes to your friends by email need not be shining examples of diction and composition. In this case, as long as all parties involved in that particular communication understand the conventions used, there is no harm done. In particular, since it often takes much longer to type out a message using correct spelling and so on, it even makes sense to have a form of “internet shorthand” for rapid communication media such as instant messaging.

What I am actually complaining about are documents that are intended for a larger audience. In particular documents that are intended to have some level of longevity. I am referring to white papers, product descriptions, and so on. But I am not referring solely to academic and professional documents. I am referring also to more informal communications that are intended to last. I am also referring to web pages, amateur fiction, and so on.

Okay, anyone who’s read this far is now thinking that I am a long winded schmuck who never gets to the point. So what exactly is wrong with these documents? I can almost hear people screaming that question at their screens. Hey, nobody forced you to read this.

With these more permanent communications, there is an increasing number of instances of horrible spelling. It is becoming ever more clear that nobody proofreads anything before they publish it, whether publishing involves hitting send in an email program or creating a web page. Come on, people, why can we not take the extra few minutes to actually verify that we spelled the words we used correctly? To make sure we didn’t make any typographical errors? I mean, really, must everyone have "words" like "ysetredya" and "graet" and so on inflicted on them? What’s even worse, though, is that people are even misspelling their own names! While this may not be critical in personal communication, anything done on a professional basis should be checked, people! Show some pride in how you appear to your readers.

While spelling is a fairly easy item to pick on, it is not necessarily the worst offender. In so many cases, people just don’t use the correct word. There is a big difference between "to" and "too", for example. Just because a spell checker doesn’t find any problems, it doesn’t mean you have no errors. Read what you wrote and make sure the words you used are the ones you meant to use! While bad spelling can be forgiven in many cases because it doesn’t change the meaning of what is written, the entire meaning of the text can change dramatically when one word is substituted for another.

In general, grammar sucks on the internet. But then, grammar hardly does any better in the rest of the universe either. Especially with the English language. But come on, some of the things people are getting wrong are the easy rules. The real basic stuff. I mean, I can forgive it if someone doesn’t know the finer points of conjugating verbs in the subjunctive mood, but EVERYONE should be able to at least get past, present, or future correct. I mean, most people can get that right when they’re talking; why not when they are writing? Really, folks, it takes very little time to learn basic grammar and it does not increase the time it takes to write something to write it correctly (in most cases).

And punctuation. Why is basic punctuation so hard for so many people? I mean, a period ends a sentence or indicates an abbreviation. Question marks indicate the preceeding statement is a question. Exclamation marks indicate an emphatic statement. Commas are more difficult but even they are not that complicated. A good reference on punctuation can demystify most of it.

All the above ranting aside, even just taking a little pride in how you appear to your readers when you write something would help. How many people would be comfortable showing up for a business meeting wearing a greasy, torn tshirt, blue jeans with holes in the knees, hair cut to different lengths, and with mismatched shoes? Yet this is exactly the sort of impression people are giving on the internet. And how much effort does it really take to get this stuff right?

I expect some people are going to send me nastygrams about how I didn’t use correct grammar in this diatribe. And those people would be correct in their assessment. But I made a conscious decision to break the rules in this text. I know exactly what I did wrong. In English, the rules can be broken if it helps clarity or flow but should not be broken indiscriminately. Those of you railing at me about my grammar should note that most of this piece actually does follow established rules of grammar. No doubt there are errors that remain in this document that are unintentional, but, hey, this is a blog.