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.
The reaction to the Times‘s editorial statement – a decision which would ordinarily have come under no scrutiny whatsoever – was intense and harsh. People sneered at the idea of the so-called ‘guardians of the English language’ for daring to pronounce on what should or should not be considered ‘standard’ English.
I can see both sides of this argument. As a writer and reader, I hate the idea that some kind of arbitrary standard should limit the way people can express themselves (though to be fair, I don’t think whether or not The New York Times
uses the word ‘tweet’ is of that much importance). On the other hand, as an editor, standardised decisions like this make my job much easier.
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?
It seems reasonable to assume that the future of book reading is at least going to involve more social networking. The newest ebook readers make connectivity a selling point – the built-in ability to share your views or quotes from a book on Twitter or Facebook is the next logical step, if it hasn’t happened already. This will be the digital equivalent of the bookshelf; except you won’t need to invite people into your home to brag about what you’re reading. Is there a chance, however, as suggested in this article in the New York Times, that this will mean books become merely ‘fodder for digital chatter’?
In my last post I talked about the rise and risks of self-publishing, and received an interesting response from one of the commenters:
I think we’re going to see more and more titles gaining success without going through traditional publishers. With most books being bought online, access to physical outlets … will matter less and less … I think it will come down to author reputation and following. The real success stories will be people who can get their book in front of influential people who will recommend it.
In other words, the future of publishing forecast by this commenter is democratic. Readers, through the medium of Facebook newsfeed algorithms and John Mayer’s tweets, will decide what gets through to you – in just the same way you heard about that funny cat picture. While this might seem both sad and unrealistic to some people, it’s a very common view, especially on the internet. The internet, in fact, has turned us all into writers, musicians, actors and journalists. There are so many people out there creating content that the vast majority of it remains unseen – at least until a highschool student from Idaho mashes up the video/poem/blog post and turns it into a meme.
Books, for the most part, have been immune to this type of thing. This might be because they’re long and not very easy to cut up into small pieces, but it might also be that there isn’t all that much digital access just yet. As this changes, it’s likely we’re going to see more “OMG LOL did u here about Banquo? Mbeth totally pwned his ass”.
Is this a terrible thing? I’m certainly not at the point where I have to tweet every funny line of every book I’m reading, but I’ll often turn to the person next to me and share something that made me laugh. At other times I’ll be itching to tell a particular group of friends about something specific I’m reading. Is moving this behaviour onto social networking so very wrong? It certainly feels … weird. Like a transgression of some kind. But I’m not sure why. What do you think?