The short answer: I can haz cheezburger.
The long answer: yes, more than ever. Let’s see why.
Many of the people who argue against the web’s flaky-seeming attitude to grammar were taught language via traditional means at school—and excelled in it.
They understand the rules and they like to apply them. They feel that decent English is a reflection on the individual who produces it, and shows a respect for the person who hears or reads it. And often, but not always, they are particularly enamoured by print media.
These are the writers who argue that you can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but”; that serial commas are either the holy grail or the devil’s work; that contractions are for face-to-face conversation, not business writing.
Are they right?
New media constraints
Of course they’re right—those are (some of) the rules of English usage.
However, new media presents new constraints on language—constraints for which some flexibility is required.
Constraint #1: technology
It’s more difficult to read and comprehend digital text than print text. There, I said it.
This is one key reason why I think language has become less formal online. Since communication’s more difficult in this medium, content creators have tried to make communicating as simple as possible.
Constraint #2: Low barriers to entry
The web has much lower barriers to entry than traditional media.
This is a major advantage for those of us with something to sell—or tell—but also, it’s another reason why the web’s less formal than traditional media.
Constraint #3: User interaction
The web’s interactive, and gives us far more information about how effective our communication is than traditional media ever could.
So, for example, we all know that web users scan, and if we’re building content for them to use, we need to consider that.
But the web also entails a broader spectrum of communication than traditional media.
These factors affect everything from whether we use a sales video, to whether we use a semi-colon in the text that invites people to view it.
Striking a compromise
You only have to look at a few lolcats to realise that the web is a place where pretty much anything goes, language-wise.
Does that mean “proper” English is dead?
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Well, that depends on one thing: your brand. Your brand has values—hopefully some that correlate with those of its target audience. It has a corresponding tone of voice, and that tone is communicated through your use of language.
If you choose to adhere to the strictest grammar rules, you can be sure that you’ll alienate some users. If you choose to compose your website in lolcats language, you can expect the same result (unless of course your business is a lolcats site).
The right compromise lies in the territory that exists between your brand and its customers. Speak to your audience using the aspects of their language that align with your brand and its values.
Each of us alters the way we talk depending on who we’re speaking to—and it’s that, not the medium, that should dictate how closely you stick to the English usage rules, as well as which ones you stick to, in your web copy and content.
In this context, it’s the people who know the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling inside-out—and therefore know when and how to break them—that are able to pitch their online message to greatest effect.
But hang on. You’re not a grammarian: you’re a developer, or a CEO, or a founder. Where does this leave you?
We’ll answer that question next week, as we look at user testing your copy to see if it’s hitting the mark.
Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and sitepoint.com cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.
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