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(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: Language and the Web

by Edwin L. Battistella

Language and the Web

Electronic communication poses new style and usage challenges. Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon designed their edited volume Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age for people who write for, on, or about the internet. The book emerged from the Wired magazine style guide, which, ironically, is no longer online. Noting in the introduction that Wired style is “anarchic, fluid, and rule-averse,” Hale and Scanlon offer a glossary of online terms and chapters with such titles as “Transcend the Technical,” “Capture the Colloquial,” “Anticipate the Future,” and “Screw the Rules.”  Wired Style deals only marginally with traditional usage questions, and it treats those from its own breezy perch. 

Heidi Schultz’s The Elements of Electronic Communication is more of a how-to guide, offering advice on using and writing email (including tips on headings, salutations, length, tone, emphasis, organization, and purpose). For citation aspects of online style, a good resource is Janice Walker and Todd Taylor’s The Columbia Guide to Online Style, which not only gives standards for citing online sources (including blogs and wikis) but also covers research and the preparation of online publications. The chapter on the logic of citation—access, intellectual property, economy, standardization, and transparency—is wonderful. Geared toward social media users and marketing writers, Dom Sagolla’s 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form makes the case for Twitter as a medium and offers Zen-like advice on what and how to tweet. And whereas there is understandably no style guide for using emojis, Philip Seargeant’s The Emoji Revolution is a readable introduction to the historical (and prehistorical) context of emojis and their use in shaping identity and culture today. For exploration and explanation of how the internet has changed language and style, readers should consult Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.

Since today many go online rather than to a bookshelf for information of all sorts, most are aware that many of the resources discussed in this essay are available online by subscription. Among these are the excellent Chicago Manual of Style Online and OED Online. With regard to the latter, those who use only the paper or CD-ROM OED2 are shortchanging themselves. OED Online includes a historical thesaurus that allows searches by meaning. And it is updated quarterly with at least a thousand new or revised entries that often push back the earliest citations of particular word senses. Recent new additions include the words “contactless,” “defund,” “gig economy,” and “overshare.” Among free online sources are Merriam-Webster Online, the American Heritage Dictionary, and the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wiktionary, a “wiki-based open content dictionary” available in multiple languages. The content of Wiktionary is created, edited, and maintained by users. Also available online at no cost is the thirty-first edition of the GPO Style Manual.

A number of internet sites serve those interested in what linguists know and think about language. The best is Language Log, the creation of Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Paul, where one can find fascinating takes on linguistics in the news. Grammarphobia, created by Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, has a question-and-answer format, where readers’ queries about grammar, usage, and etymology are researched. And Gretchen McCullock’s All Things Linguistic and Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl (the online iteration of the book discussed above) break down complex grammar topics into digestible portions.

Works Cited