'Because Internet,' A Guide To Our Changing Language, LOL Whether you're extremely online or still confused by how a simple period can be interpreted as passive-aggressive, linguist Gretchen McCulloch has a guide to how our on-screen speech is morphing.

Our Language Is Evolving, 'Because Internet'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/747020219/747041552" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The Internet has become a place where we spark and build relationships. We're all one LOL away from friends, family or a potential love match. And yet there is plenty of potential for miscommunication. Who among us hasn't wondered whether a message in all caps meant urgent, furious, really enthusiastic? A missing comma can throw you into emotional turmoil. The new book "Because Internet" aims to clear things up with some rules of Internet language.

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: The old rules are these sort of top down, you know, here's how you use an apostrophe. Here's how you use a semicolon type of thing. The new rules are about how are other people going to interpret your tone of voice. What can you do to make sure that people are reading you the way you want to be read?

CORNISH: Author and linguist Gretchen McCulloch says a lot of the confusion stems from the fact that people approach this vocabulary differently depending on when they first went online. For instance...

MCCULLOCH: There's a difference between how these different groups use LOL, or lol (ph) the acronym, which initially stood for laughing out loud. And if you talk to people in some of these older generations who, you know, have been using the Internet for 20 years but came online in a less social space, they see it, OK, here's an acronym. They're told it is an acronym. It must mean laughing out loud. And so they still use it as actual laughter whereas when you talk to the youngest groups, lol became more a marker of irony or softening or I'm not angry at you, I'm not feeling hostile, you know, these additional sort of subtle social meanings. And for the youngest group of people, there's no literal meaning left to lol at all. It's just the...

CORNISH: It's almost like a filler the way people would say like.

MCCULLOCH: Well, yeah, it's a filler that specifically indicates that there's some sort of double meaning to be found. And sometimes that double meaning is - you know, if I say something that could be interpreted as rude or hostile, like, oh, I hate you, if I say I hate you lol, now I'm joking, so it's fine. I'm not laughing out loud while I hit you, like, in a malicious sort of way. I'm undermining my message and saying I hate you lol but that's - I'm not serious about it. But in the inverse, if you say I love you lol, that doesn't soften the message any more. Now that means, oh, no, I fake love you. Like, I'm being quite mean about that. So it's not always a softener. It just hints towards some sort of double meaning, which could be good or bad.

CORNISH: You talked about the idea of a hostility, and I was surprised to learn how much debate there is around the use of a period. So for the rest of us who just use a period at the end of a sentence, it made me feel, as one producer put it, old as dust to learn that it also can be seen as passive-aggressive.

MCCULLOCH: Yeah. The period is such an interesting new battleground for Internet language because there's definitely a traditional use, which is still found in formal writing. You know, the book contains many periods and they're not passive-aggressive because it's a formal context. But in an informal context, you don't need the period anymore to distinguish between one sentence or one phrase and the next because you're just going to hit send in a chat context. You can just send the message. And that makes your messages easier to read than this massive wall of text, particularly on a tiny screen. That means that the period is now open and available for taking on other sorts of meanings and other connotations. And one of those is that very sense of formality. And you read a formal sentence like, and now over to the weather, and you sort of drop your tone of voice. Making your voice deeper at the end of the sentence like you conventionally do with a period in formal writing adds a note of solemnity or finality or seriousness to what you're saying.

CORNISH: Yes. That's what I'm going for.

MCCULLOCH: (Laughter) Right. But the problem is if you say, OK, sounds good and you add that note of seriousness, now you've got positive words and serious punctuation and the clash between them is what creates that sense of passive aggression.

CORNISH: How do we avoid misunderstandings?

MCCULLOCH: We talk to each other. You can ask people what they mean.

CORNISH: But isn't that seen as - I don't know - sort of dorky (laughter)? Because you're saying it as though someone might actually pick up the phone and start talking. And less and less, that's happening.

MCCULLOCH: I mean, you don't have to talk to people by picking up the phone. You can talk to people by saying what did you mean by that, or are you actually mad at me in the text message. You know, sometimes I say this is associated with older people and people take that as a criticism, but I think it's just as incumbent on younger people to say maybe I shouldn't be overinterpreting hostility or passive aggression when someone's sending me. Maybe I should just be interpreting this with the context of I know this person is older and so they're not actually being passive aggressive at me. It doesn't mean that just because this is what the kids are doing means we all have to talk like that. But having increased understanding across different generations can help people avoid miscommunications in their text messaging, which is really what I'm trying to do with "Because Internet."

CORNISH: You talk a lot about how informal writing is mutable and changing. Is there anything you've learned or new trends that you've seen recently that you wish you were able to get into the book?

MCCULLOCH: That's a good one. One new trend that I've seen that I really wish I had been able to spend more space on in the book is the continued evolution of keysmash. So keysmash is when you mash your fingers against a keyboard to, you know, convey this incoherent emotion. But what I was just noticing as I was writing the book and didn't quite have enough data to include is that keysmashing has also been changing as we use mobile phones more. Because when you keysmash on a full mechanical keyboard, you do have your fingers on the home row with A-S-D-F and so on. But when you keysmash on a smartphone keyboard, you have your thumbs over, like, G-H-S-D-S-K - something like that. So instead of going A-S-D-F from left to right, you might end up with, like, S-K-S-K-S-K or G-H-G-H-G-H, something going back and forth between your thumbs near the center of the keyboard.

And so the way we keysmash has been changing partly in response to the social pressure, partly in response to the devices we're using. And it's such an interesting example for me because it looks like we're just being monkeys typing randomly on a keyboard producing something totally incoherent, and yet there are social patterns to it. There are real linguistic trends to keysmash even something that looks so random.

CORNISH: There are words we type in social media so often that are just spur-of-the-moment messages and reactions. Why do you think we should take this type of writing so seriously?

MCCULLOCH: For a long time, linguists have been arguing that the most interesting type of language is the informal speech that you produce when you're not thinking about it. Because when we do stuff fast and without seemingly thinking about it too hard, we access these levels of unconscious linguistic awareness that we all have. And I think that informal writing online has similar things that make it very interesting. If we only analyze the language in books, we only analyze one type of language. If we analyze the language on the Internet, we can analyze so many different types of languages, so many different ways of talking and get a bigger picture of what it means to be a person rather than just what it means to be the type of person who writes a book.

CORNISH: Gretchen McCulloch is author of the book "Because Internet: Understanding The New Rules Of Language."

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCCULLOCH: Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.