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I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Blog Statistics

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 7/13/2018

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Posts - 2508
Comments - 2574
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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 4:48 AM Pacific


  08:18 AM

Among the many popular themes on the Language Log, which is run by a bunch of Professional Linguists, of course, is the consistenly inaccurate state of journalism about anything to do with language, including, for example, those ever-popular topics of "xxx words for snow in Eskimo" (#), "animal language" (#), "fun facts about English" (#), and "primitive people say the darndest things" (#, #). (The cites are not necessarily the most representative, but I don't have all day here to be tracking down cites, ya know! I have a blog to publish! :-))

Today we scan our collection of blogs by copy editors to find that everyone's talking about a piece in the Toronto Star on how the Internet is killing off punctuation. I'm really torn by this one. On the one hand, I am entirely sympathetic to one of the article's points, which is that punctuation in English is sufficiently hard for people to master -- hey, like spelling -- that it's crying out for reform. I hardly need remind you that it apparently requires a graduate degree to be able to use apostrophes correctly with any degree of consistency. (Mocking the misuse whereof is more-or-less a full-time pasttime for a certain supercilious set of would-be language police).

The article makes some points I sympathize with:
Most literate[1] users won't distinguish between e-mail and email, for instance — in the world according to search engines, it's all email to them.

"Language changes over time naturally. But now we're very confused," Baron says.

URLs' tendency to string separate words into one long address isn't helping language hold its form either.
Whether we're more confused than ever before is a questionable claim (see below), but I tend to believe that because the Internet (via IM and blogs) has provided so much more opportunity for people to write, rules about punctuation that are hard or don't make sense to people are coming under the kind of pressure that drives change.[2]

But the article also includes a selection of claims that are dubious at best. For starters, the article is a bit muddy on the distinction between language change generally and changes in orthographical conventions like apostrophes -- you can expunge the use of apostrophes entirely from (written) English without one tiny bit affecting how people speak to each other.

Beyond that:
Linguistically speaking, the next decade will see these niceties of language become "largely a free for all, whether you have one word or two or a hyphen," Baron says.
a.k.a. "English is going to hell (let's blame the Internet)." Among other problems -- like, proof of your timeline is what? -- there is the frequent confusion betweeen "change in rules" and "no rules."

And the following, an often-heard sentiment that could be a poster child for the recency illusion:
The Internet is reinforcing bad English habits started during the linguistically lackadaisical '60s and '70s, she says.
I mean, I knew that the 60s had been the ruination of all things Good and True, but I wasn't aware that before the permissive 60s, apostrophe use had been so good. On the contrary, as Robert Burchfield noted:
If anyone should think that the misuse of apostrophes is a new phenomenon, just take a look at the following comments ... the polymath Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, philosopher, radical politician, and grammarian, remarked in a mild-mannered way in his Rudiments of English Grammar (1761): 'Sometimes we find an apostrophe used in the plural number, when the noun ends in a vowel; as in inamorato's, toga's, tunica's, Otho's, a set of virtuoso's'. He took these from the works of Addison.
And in any event, the article seems to knock down its own straw man:
She has found that while coded language is common among young teenagers, once a given person becomes more confident with typing and computers, the abbreviations and corruptions are abandoned.
If I read this right, after trumpeting the forthcoming "free for all," the article seems to be telling us that the various usages described are maybe nothing more than a fad or a phase.

Whenever I see something like this, I remember the words of Geoff Nunberg, who in one of his many roles happens to be one of the posters on the Language Log:
The language isn't falling apart. We don't know whether we'll be able to pay for our lunch in 10 years, but we'll certainly be able to order it.
[1] We'll overlook the fact that whether you write the word e-mail or email, you're by definition literate, since illerate users don't distinguish them at all, seeing as how they can't read or write.

[2] We have a word for that, actually. It's called democracy.

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