One Day in the Life of the English Language by Frank Cioffi, a new style guide that eschews memorization in favor of internalizing how sentences actually work, handily refutes these 15 myths of digital-age English. Think brevity is best? Swear by your default settings? Feel sure the internet is a “total latrine”? Try out this “True or False” test and see whether you’re the digital-age wordsmith you thought you were:
1. In the age of the tweet, short and concise is always the best.
True, true, short messages are often the best. But not always. Sometimes one needs to go on at some length. Sometimes it is necessary to provide a context, especially if one is trying to communicate more than just minimal information. And sometimes the very brevity or terseness of a tweet makes it impossible to understand.
2. My word processing program doesn’t let me change margins, spacing, or other aspects of format.
Most word processing programs can be set up to accommodate any standard style; however, you need to use the program’s capabilities and not always accept default settings. In Microsoft Word, for example, many writers allow the program its silly default—to put an extra line space between paragraphs of the same format. This should be unselected as a default off the “paragraph” menu.
3. My word processing program will highlight and automatically fix any errors I make.
These automatic correction programs are notoriously unreliable, as they often “fix” writing that is in fact correct. For example, at first I thought one of my students had subject-verb agreement problems; then I noted that the program tried to get me to introduce such errors into my own work. You, not the program, are the mind behind the words. Don’t rely on your program to fix everything. Let it check—but you check too.
4. “Logical punctuation” is the best option in most situations.
This idea usually refers to putting punctuation either inside or outside of quotation marks. The logicality of doing so or not doing so has been questioned by many. It’s probably best to follow conventions of a given style, unless you are not working within any particular field. In that case, you can invent new rules; just don’t expect others to understand or follow them.
5. People don’t really read anymore; they merely “scan a page for information.”
Gary Shteyngart brings up this idea in his 2011 novel Super Sad True Love Story. It’s interesting and has some truth to it: I agree that many people don’t read with a lot of care or seek to understand and internalize the written ideas they encounter. But some do. Think of that “some” as your audience. At the same time, consider the needs of an audience that just “scans the page.” Ask yourself, “Does this page I’ve just written include information worth scanning?”
6. Anyone can publish written material nowadays, so what’s the value of Standard Written English?
With the Internet, it’s true that anyone can publish now. And many self-publishing options are open to any writer seeking to get work in print. Simply publishing something is now less a guarantee of its excellence or importance than it once was, but if you strive to have your work read—by more than family and friends—it will have to respect some standard forms and conventions. Or to put it another way, no matter what your publishing goals, if you want people to read your work, you will have to write with a high level of competence and lucidity.
7. People are much less precise and exact than they used to be, now that they have computers to rely on.
This is clearly not the case in all situations. In fact, people must be much more careful now with details such as spelling, especially when entering passwords or usernames. In many digital contexts, attentiveness to language accuracy is obligatory. If you are inattentive, you often can’t even use the computer or the program. If you don’t respect the syntax of a program, it just won’t run.
8. “Talking street” is what most people want to do anyway.
I think that most people have to use multiple forms of English. They might speak one way to their family, one way to their friends, one way on their jobs, and another way, perhaps, when they need to write a paper for a college course they are taking. People can and should become multilingual.
9. Most grammatical stuff is of minor importance—kind of too boring and persnickety to bother with.
I agree that there are more important things in the world, but I have been making the argument throughout this book that in fact these “minor” matters do seem to make a difference to some people—and a major difference to a small minority. And writ large, they make a big difference in our society. Admittedly, there is a persnickety quality to some of the material, but isn’t specialization all about being persnickety?
10. Someone else can “wordsmith” my ideas; I just generate them.
The line between the idea and the expression of it is very fine; that is, how you say something is often inextricable from what you say. You need to take charge of not just coming up with a basic idea or notion but also of how that idea gets expressed. If you have a stake in how an idea exists in its final form, you should take great care with its exact verbal formulation.
11. Since so many “styles” (MLA, APA, Chicago . . .) are available and used by various specialties, it’s pointless to worry about this kind of superficial overlay.
There are a lot of forms and styles, to be sure. But you need to find the form that’s conventional in your professional field and use that. If you don’t, you almost automatically label yourself an “outsider” to that field, or perhaps even an interloper. And sometimes, just abiding by the conventions of a style gains you credibility in and of itself, allows entrée into a field.
12. There’s no possibility of an original idea anymore: it’s all been said.
One certainly feels as though this might be possible, considering the ever-expanding scope of the Internet and the existence of over seven billion human minds on the planet. However, each of us has his or her own individual experience—which is unique. And out of that, I feel, originality can emerge. You must really want that originality to emerge, though, and resist succumbing to the pressure of the multitude to simply conform to what’s standard, acceptable, predictable, dull.
13. If something is published on the Internet, it’s true.
I know that no one really believes this. But I want to emphasize that a great deal of material on the Internet is simply false—posted by people who are not reliable, well-informed, or even honest. Much Internet material that claims to be true is in fact only a form of advertising. And finally, do keep in mind that almost anyone can create websites and post content, whether they are sane or insane, children or adults, good or evil, informed or misinformed.
14. The Internet is a total latrine.
A few years ago, I heard a well-known public intellectual give a talk for which this was the thesis. And there are certainly many things on the Internet and about the Internet that bear out such a judgment. However, there are also some amazing things, which prompt me to say that the Internet is the greatest accumulation of information and knowledge in the history of humankind. But you need to learn how to use it efficiently and effectively, and sort the good from the bad.
15. I can cut and paste my way through any college paper assignment.
There are many opportunities to create what looks like your own work—cutting and pasting here, auto- summarizing there, adding a few transitional sentences, and mashing it all together. I don’t recommend this kind of work; it doesn’t really benefit you to create it. You want to write papers of your own, ones that express your own ideas and that use your own language. The cut-and-pasters are ultimately sacrificing their humanity, as they become people of the machine. And when they’re caught, the penalties can be severe.
How did you do?
Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.
Graphics by Chris Ferrante