I tell my free-verse-loving creative writing majors that Picasso learned to paint traditional portraits before he chose to put two eyes on one side of a figure’s nose. Likewise, learning the traditional rules of grammar will make your writing more powerful, since if you choose to ignore a convention, it will be a deliberate action, rather than something that happens because you don’t know any better.
When transcribing spoken words, reporters regularly cut out an “um” here and an “uh” there. Since punctuation is often just an approximation, different reporters who hear the same passage don’t always record it the same way. (See “Ladies and Gentlemen [?] we got him.” for a brief overview of how reporters variously puncutated the dramatic pause in Paul Bremer’s 2003 statement on the capture of Saddam Hussein.)
But what if you’re quoting an e-mail from a source whose computer apparently doesn’t have a shift key? You can often work around it through indirect quotation:
Using the clipped lingo typical of online chatter, Sasha said she would be right back (“brb”) because her kid sister’s rabid wallabee had gotten stuck in the air vent again (“ksrwsiava”).
When does standardizing a language change the sentiment too much? There’s a whole side industry of bloggers who enjoy picking apart President Bush’s published verbal gaffes. Certainly anything a public figure says at an official event is fair game, but when an ordinary citizen suddenly becomes a source of news — perhaps by being related to a crime victim — it may appear patronizing to publish their ungrammatical statements either verbatim, or with an encrustation of parenthetical corrections.
Online communication adds yet another layer of uncertainty. When is it appropriate to leave the cyberspeak as is, without parenthetical clarifications or silent corrections? The NYT offers a great reflection on the relationship between cyberspeak and standard written English.
My problem with message-board language brings up a prior problem in
journalism: the difficulty of translating spoken language into written
language. The philosopher Jacques Derrida gained notoriety by dimming
the bright line between what was known in strange pre-Internet lingo
(French, was it?) as langue and parole. He thought the written-spoken
distinction was suspect and by turns collapsed and reasserted itself in
the merry game of signification.
Nothing works more Frenchly
and merrily this way — shape-shifting at a rapid pace — than Internet
language, which morphs from standard English (a dialect of which has
become the Web’s lingua franca) to other languages and dialects to
slang and emoticons and acronyms and phonetic miscellany. (Take “hey
guys, i’m stoopid. DOH! meh. GAH. :O wth.” Can this communication be
taken as an admission of some kind of error? Can it be faithfully
paraphrased as “she admitted her mistake on a message board”?) I can’t
tell how much of this keycap casserole belongs in ink on paper or how
much of it makes sense there. — Virginia Hefferman