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The rules of written English no longer apply to millennials on social media

Image: bob al-greene / mashable

The spelling and grammar rules do not apply on the Millennial Internet™. 

That’s because millennials have created a new rulebook for a variant of written English unique to social media. A rulebook which states that deliberately misspelled words and misused grammar can convey tone, nuance, humour, and even annoyance. 

Dr Lauren Fonteyn, English Linguistics lecturer at University of Manchester, told Mashable “something exciting” is happening with the way that millennials write, and it goes far, far beyond our proclivity to use acronyms and “like.”  

Fonteyn says millennials are “breaking the constraints” of written English to “be asexpressive as you can be in spoken language.” This new variant of written English strives to convey what body language, and tone and volume of voice can achieve in spoken English. 

Fonteyn says that on a superficial level, we can see millennials stripping anything unnecessary from their writing, like the removal of abbreviation markers in “dont,” “cant,” “im” and in acronyms like tf, ur, bc, idk, and lol. In a world where most of our conversations take place online, millennials are using a number of written devices to convey things that could typically only be communicated by cadence, volume, or even body language. 

One such device is “atypical capitalisation,” according to Fonteyn, a break from a rule prescribed by standard spelling, which states that capitalisation is “reserved for proper nouns, people, countries, brands, the first person pronoun, and the first word in a new sentence.” 

“What we see in millennial spelling is different, but not unruly,” says Fonteyn. “Capitals are not necessarily used for people (we know who ed sheeran is, it’s Ed Sheeran), or initial words of a text or tweet.”

Dr Ruth Page, senior lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Birmingham University, says that frequently the “personal pronoun (‘I’) is in the lower case (‘i’)” which is sometimes used to “play down the person’s sense of self.”

While we’re abandoning capitals for things that typically always required them, we’re using them to add emphasis or humour to written sentences. “Capitals ARE used, however, to make words stand out,” says Fonteyn. “By capitalising something that is not typically capitalised, you can add subtle emphasis, or irony or mockery.” Full capitals are used to denote strong emphasis, or “volume of laughter in lol vs. LOL,” says Fonteyn. 

Millennials’ use—or rather, misuse—of punctuation is where things really start to get creative. Page says research shows how “non-standard use of punctuation can reflect ‘tone of voice’ or what linguists would call ‘paralinguistic’ meaning.” She says that an example of this is using a period (a.k.a. a full stop) at the end of a sentence to “indicate that you are cross.” 

According to Fonteyn, the absence of a full stop at the end of a sentence is “neutral,” but the addition of one adds the “sense of being pissed off,” or that you’re “done talking.”

A two-dot ellipsis (..), in millennial English means “continue,” or “please elaborate.” And, a three-dot ellipsis denotes an “awkward or annoyed silence,” or “are you serious?” 

Using the comma-ellipsis to write ‘ok,,’ or ‘you sure,,,’ can convey “insecurity or uneasiness,” according to Fonteyn. While a three-dot ellipsis might be employed to convey intense annoyance, the comma-ellipsis indicates a “different type of intensity,” of annoyance or unsureness.  

An utter absence of punctuation is most often used as a way of expressing sheer unadulterated excitement. “A complete lack of punctuation iconically mimics the way someone speaks when they are crazy excited about something,” says Fonteyn. “In that case, you are adding excitement by taking away commas and full stops, which indicate pauses.”

Attempting to bush the bounds of what written language can do in order to better express ourselves and our feelings is the chief use for these devices.

But, Dr Peredur Webb-Davies, senior lecturer in Welsh Linguistics at Bangor University, says it also has something to do with feeling part of a community. Webb-Davies says that internet users can “project an identity for themselves which is represented by the way they type their language.” Crucially, “users who write in similar ways using a ‘code’ that might be mostly only intelligible to those in the know, can do this to feel part of a wider community.”

For millennials who conduct so many of their conversations online, this creativity with written English allows us to express things that we would have previously only been conveyed through volume, cadence, tone, or body language. But, Fonteyn thinks it “goes beyond that as well,” with things like the trademark symbol. 

“When TM is added to a phrase, it ADDS something you can’t do in a regular conversation,” says Fonteyn. “I don’t think this originates in speech, because I don’t think anyone actually says “the point TM.” 

“This emphatic method might actually originate in digital language: they’re not just indicating prosody from spoken language but they are adding a visual joke to it, TM in Hyperscript,” Fonteyn adds. 

What we’re witnessing is the nascent beginnings of informal written English becoming even more expressive than spoken English. 

Perhaps we should add “IRL conversations” to The Official List of Things Millennials Destroyed. LOL. 

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/04/02/millennials-written-english/

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