Here’s a controversial argument: for most of the internet, grammar doesn’t matter.
I’m not saying that most of the people on the internet don’t care about grammar, a quick look through almost any forum will reveal grammar slackers and grammar nazis by the score–I’m saying that for most places on the internet the way that you construct and punctuate your communications is irrelevant. I would even argue that a lack of attention to grammar in a lot of cases is a good thing.
Linguists differentiate spoken English and written English as two completely different forms of the language, each with their own conventions and acceptable practice. Written English pays more attention to grammar, it is more conscious of sentence structure and the need for clarity. Written English demands that the reader understand the message immediately, because the reader will not be given the chance to ask questions. Written English is a monologue. Written English demands that the writer conform to a certain tone and standards depending on the expected audience for the writing.
Spoken English is almost always a dialogue. A speaker speaks and the listener questions; through that conversation an understanding is formed. Speech patterns are particular to the speaker, the way that a speaker orders and delivers words is as much a part of the communication as the meaning of the words and the accompanying body language. Planned presentations and other lecture-style deliveries are an exception, they follow the conventions of written English more closely, but a typical conversation between peers will not be carefully constructed and checked for grammar. It will include sentence fragments. Sentences will run on, circle about themselves, words will be misplaced and misused. Passive voice will be used by the speaker, and there’s no need to correct it. The words are out, the meaning is clear, both parties can walk away from the conversation satisfied that they have reached understanding.
With that in mind, consider the purpose and nature of posts on social networks. Most often they open up a dialogue with other users, allowing for comments and questions. Forums encourage members to read and respond to each other, pushing communication both ways. Blogs are a vehicle for self-expression. In each of these cases, users are communicating through text using the same sentence structure (or lack thereof) that they would use if they were speaking to their readers in person. Although it is typed and presented in a visual, not aural, format–text of this type is not written English. It’s spoken English. The same is true of personal letters, notes passed in class, text messages, and other instant messaging.
I once tried to imagine surfing Facebook in a world where every user was grammatically conscious. I realised it would be boring. Half of what I love about Facebook is people being who they are, unashamedly, expressing themselves in the same passionate and grammatically-incorrect ways they would in speech. I’d miss the run-on sentences, the commonly misused words, the passive voice, the over excited excessive use of exclamation points. The way people break grammar is a part of who they are, and a strong part of their ‘casual’ writing voice. If every Facebook post was in proper written English, I think we’d lose a lot of that. We’d lose the people behind the text and reading Facebook would be as interesting as reading the weather report.
Some grammatical errors and stylistic infelicities will always niggle me, and I’ll always twitch awkwardly when someone confuses there/they’re/their. I’ll re-read things that don’t make sense, question what I can’t make sense of, and I’ll quietly laugh to myself when someone uses a wrong word. But I’ll try not to edit them anymore.
I’m putting up the red pen on social networking and opinion posts. Time to accept them for what they are: speech in writing.