An editorial clarification last week at The New York Times and the reaction to it has made me wonder if it’s possible for editors to keep up with how quickly language is changing in the face of technological development.
I had suggested that outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” should still be treated as colloquial rather than as standard English. It can be used for special effect, or in places where a colloquial tone is appropriate, but should not be used routinely in straight news articles.
Yahoo News, swiftly becoming a trusted source of news as well as an aggregator, has recently released a stylebook in the vein of the much celebrated (and much despised) Associated Press stylebook. They are selling printed versions of it, but it also exists as a website for free. But I have to wonder, is there really a need for a resource like this when we have Google? The Yahoo stylebook has a fairly comprehensive FAQ, including questions about standard spelling and SEO. SEO stands for ‘search engine optimisation’. SEO is basically the umbrella term for all the tricks a web developer uses for getting their website to the top of Google search results. A part of this is ensuring that the standard spelling used for a word throughout a website – particularly if it’s a key word – is the spelling most likely to be used by people searching on Google.
This raises an interesting question. If Google is (among many other things) a global and aggregated digest of common spelling and usage, then is a stylebook even necessary anymore? Google has already become my go-to source for standard spelling, hyphenation or spacing of a word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary. ‘How many pages are on Google?’ is often my first question when a fellow editor asks me for the standard way of writing something. As books are increasingly digitised and searchable, is it more important to be visible – or technically correct? Is there, in fact, even such a thing as ‘technically correct’?
Language is a tricky thing. There is a balance between authority and democracy to be struck, and the internet is tipping that balance toward democracy. It’s something that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, the strength of the English language is its fluidity – it can change and adapt to the changes and adaptations of its speakers. On the other hand, the pedant in me screams at the idea that someone can start using ‘literally’ just to emphasise their point. But what if Google says it’s OK? Does that make it right? What do you think?