Along with the trusty ol’ text message, Twitter, Tumblr, and other forms of social media have completely overhauled the way we communicate with one another over the past decade plus. They’ve essentially allowed for more nuanced expression, adding layers to language with things like emojis and the ability to manipulate tone via our punctuation choices. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the prevailing ways the internet has changed the English language.
In certain contexts, use of the full stop can have negative connotations. As plenty of millennials can confirm, punctuating texts, direct messages, or other one-liners with a full stop may convey a harsh or aggressive tone. Of course we need periods in stories—from news briefs to novels and everything in between—to indicate where one sentence ends and another begins, and the idea that they’re a dying punctuation mark is moot, but in texts, chats, and quick emails, we are forced to confront the new reality that they aren’t truly necessary, thanks to the line break. The use of the period is, these days, open to interpretation in brief exchanges, and context should be considered. The period at the end of a text from a friend who never uses periods in their messages is a highly distressing one; the one at the end of a text from the friend who always properly punctuates and capitalizes their messages is no cause for alarm.
We’re also punctuating. Things. Like. This. The addition of full stops in between the last few words of a sentence—or all the words in a shorter sentence—is a more recent punctuation trend that seems to have been birthed on the internet as well. (See? Told you they’re not dying!) The full stops direct the reader to read a sentence more slowly and emphatically, and effectively convey a sense of drama or passion for the subject at hand.
We’re consulting the dictionary less frequently to determine whether or not a word is “real.” While dictionaries are one of the world’s greatest resources, the reality is that they can’t keep up with the pace of language change in real time. I’m often asked by my colleagues, of certain funny or strange words, “Is this a real word?” Of course it is—you just used it. It was crafted using characters that create a sound we both recognize and a meaning we both understand. As American lexicographer Erin McKean said in her TEDYouth TED Talk, “My job is not to decide what a word is; that is your job. Everybody who speaks English decides together what’s a word and what’s not a word. Every language is just a group of people who are trying to understand each other... Words in English are like Lego: If you use enough force, you can put any two of them together.”
Tildes are being used just as often as common emphatic conventions like boldface or italics are. The tilde is wondrous because it does something we didn’t realize we needed punctuation for. It has the capacity to express things we were previously unaware a punctuation mark or boldface or italic font could express, functioning in myriad ways an adorable asterisk pair could never: for ~whimsical~, self-deprecating, sarcastic, or ironic emphasis.
Emojis! Emojis lend a layer of mood to otherwise mood-less phrasing, as a punctuation mark 2.0. They are, in a sense, the most evolved form of punctuation we have at our disposal. Consider the sentence “Can’t believe I did that,” for instance. While there isn’t much context as to what that is referring to in this statement, the intended tone communicated by the sender can be swiftly revealed with the addition of an emoji or two: a crying or grimacing face may indicate sadness or guilt, but accompanied by a sunglasses-wearing face and a trophy, the sentence would appear to take on a proud and celebratory tone.
New slang is being created at a seemingly accelerated rate. While every generation has had their lot of slang terms and phrases of the moment, the internet is a breeding ground for phrasings born out of memes and viral content like YouTube videos (eyebrows on fleek, anyone?). Slang rooted in internet features themselves is byproduct of this—like “Don’t @ me” as another way of saying, “I stand behind this and don’t want to hear otherwise from you.”
We’re developing a more relaxed approach to profanity. In a world where things much worse than a straggling F-word are accessible to children, we’ve seen a shift in attitudes toward “casual-use” profanity for comedic or dramatic effect—see, for example, BuzzFeed quiz “How Fucking British Are You?” It would be in all of our best interests to worry about things that are truly offensive, like disrespectful or derogatory language.
That said, we’re also more attuned to inclusive, respectful language. Thanks to the myriad resources available online—from the GLAAD Media Reference Guide to Conscious Style Guide, the Diversity Style Guide, and the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Disability Language Style Guide—there’s no longer an excuse to say, “Oh, I didn’t know that wasn’t the right way to talk about that” when writing about marginalized groups or people whose cultures or experiences you are unfamiliar with. We can consult a style guide to learn how to refer to indigenous peoples of various regions just as easily as we can ensure we’re writing respectfully about people living with disabilities.
Phrases once circulated primarily within a particular community or group often find themselves gliding rapidly into mainstream usage. And they shape-shift in the process. In this age of the omnipresent hashtag, spotting an unfamiliar word traipsing around the internet and misappropriating it by assigning it the characteristics you think it reflects—or applying it in a manner that is most familiar to you—is one way this happens (as we’ve seen, for instance, with basic as a slang term, which has roots in hip-hop culture and originally signified something along the lines of “uncouth,” but quickly became synonymous with a disparaging way to describe conformity).
We have essentially reduced lol to punctuation. Lol is but an empty shell of an abbreviation, a sad silhouette of what once indicated sincere enjoyment of a hilarious joke. A sparkling diamond reduced to cubic zirconia status, lol now finds itself with the daunting responsibility of serving as a marker of acknowledgment for anything from a mildly amusing idea to a genuinely comical statement to a pleasant observation to a downright crappy situation. Before our very eyes, in just two decades, lol devolved from an expression of one of the most joyous, pure experiences of human existence—the all-consuming urge to laugh out loud after reading profoundly hilarious words on a screen—to a measly filler word.