Bad Language on the Internet

Communication in writing has a long history, but for hundreds, even thousands, of years it was limited to what individuals could achieve by marking a material surface with a hand-held implement. This continued until very recently in the medium known as pen and ink, in which documents were written on paper, either directly by hand or with the aid of a typewriter. Over the last few decades, however, the written word has been transmitted electronically and manifested on a computer screen. Although important documents are still printed on paper, many more exist as transient images for only as long as they take to read. This increasingly ephemeral nature of the written word seems to have emboldened previously reluctant writers to engage in the closeted world of social media using language that even they would be shy to use in polite conversation. There appears to be a tendency for language on the internet to descend to the lowest common denominator.

There was a time during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when copper plate handwriting was taught in British schools. Those who can remember relatives brought up in that era marvelled at the beauty of their writing. Teachers used to tell their students that a tidy page reflected a tidy mind, and there was an anecdotal belief that neatness correlated with intelligence. It was the same with language; an intelligent person was expected to be able to express him/herself clearly without recourse to the use of expletives.

A young engineer, sent to commission a seawater distillation plant in the Persian Gulf in the 1960s, was told by the Glaswegian workers who had built the plant that he must excuse their bad language because they did not benefit from a higher education and were not able otherwise to express themselves. In those days, such people would have read very little and written much less, but with the advent of the internet and social media they are free to express themselves online as they would in their local public house. So the contagion of the world of the spoken word has infected the world of written communication.

The problem on the internet is not from those who did not benefit from a higher education who, perhaps, will always have recourse to profanities, but from respected authors and official bodies who have traditionally set themselves to maintain high standards. One by one such personages are losing respect as they descend into the gutter, albeit with asterisks inserted with mock modesty in place of omitted vowels. These entities with the ability to express themselves on good English should return to seeing their role as setting a standard towards which others might aspire.

Source by John Powell

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