Language and the Internet

(Axel Boer) #1


The linguistic limitations of word-processing and search-engine
software affect our ability to find what is on the Web in several
ways, and eventually must surely influence our intuitions about
the nature of our language. So do the attempts to control usage
in areas other than the politically correct. Which writers have not
felt angry at the way pedants in the software companies have at-
tempted to interfere with their style, sending a warning when their
sentences go beyond a certain length, or when they usewhichin-
stead ofthat(or vice versa), or -iseinstead of -ize(or vice versa),
or dare to split an infinitive? The advice can be switched off, of
course; but many people do not bother to switch it off, or do not
know how to. Sometimes they do not want to switch it off, as some-
thing of value is lost thereby. The software controlling the page I
am currently typing, for example, inserts a red wavy line under-
neath anything which is misspelled, according to the dictionary
it uses. I find this helpful, because I am no perfect typist. On the
other hand it has just underlinedscrutinizingandformalized,in
the previous paragraph (though, curiously, notorganized). The
red lines are a constant irritant, and it takes a real effort of will
not to yield to them and go for the software-recommended form.
Whether others resist this insidious threat to linguistic variety I do
not know. My feeling is that a large number of valuable stylistic dis-
tinctions are being endangered by this repeated encounter with the
programmer’s prescriptive usage preferences. Online dictionaries
and grammars are likely to influence usage much more than their
traditional Fowlerian counterparts ever did. It would be good to
see a greater descriptive realism emerge, paying attention to the
sociolinguistic and stylistic complexity which exists in a language,
but at present the recommendations are arbitrary, oversimplified,
and depressingly purist in spirit (p. 74).^27

(^27) Dorner (1992) illustrates from various offerings. She comments on the nature of the
software writer’s problem: ‘Software that upbraids a writer too often is irritating and
saps the confidence of inexperienced writers: software that fails to deal with one of the
matters that can expose a writer to public scorn is unreliable and saps the confidence of
experienced writers’ (p. 30).

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