New books offer ammunition in battle against prescriptive grammarians

Two new books tackle English style and usage for the Internet age.

by Hugh Gilmore

Here’s a pair of shin-kickers with namby-pamby titles. You’d probably not pick them up off a bookshelf at the local Barnes & Noble unless you were a writer or some other kind of odd bird who likes to read about where the English language is headed. According to their authors, the “rules” of the English language (at least the written part) are finally being liberated from their moribund past and becoming something useful to its users.

“Semicolon” (2019), written by Cecelia Watson, is subtitled, “The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.” Watson earned a doctorate in history and philosophy of science, was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and has received many honors at a young age while serving as a faculty member at Bard College.

She became interested years ago in the way that the punctuation of written speech – originally devised to assist writers convey their meanings – evolved into a twisted rule-bound, cart-before the horse system of choking, hog-tying and scourging generations of aspiring writers. Though punctuation is merely a writer’s way of telling the reader where and how long to pause and breathe and catch a writer’s rhythm and meaning, it became, in the hands of English teachers and editors, a game of “gotcha” that inhibited centuries of fledgling writers while infuriating the professional ones.

“Semicolon” is a brief and in-depth history of that most feared of all marks, from its invention in 1491 by the Italian printer Aldus Manutius, through its elaboration and codification during the following centuries, to the present day where it is either reviled by the many or worshipped by the few. Watson herself has come to enjoy it, use it where appropriate and step back to admire its longevity and historical usefulness.

If the semicolon were a cat she would rub its chin and pet it. She writes with admirable clarity and a great sense of humor. Like so many brilliant young scholars, she studs her book with cuss words for effect and stops now and then during her commute for a cocktail. (She wanted a strong one once and befuddled the bartender by asking for “two gins and tonic,” an expression worthy of footnoted discussion by this linguistically bent scholar of the history and philosophy of science.) I highly recommend it to those of you who are language buffs.

“Internet linguist” Gretchen McCulloch wrote the other book, “Because Internet: Understanding How Language is Changing” (2019). McCulloch is Canadian, has a master’s in linguistics from McGill University, writes the “Resident Linguist” column at Wired, runs the blog “All Things Linguistic” and cohosts the “Lingthuiasm” podcast.

A certain amount (let’s say a lot) of information about how language is used by computer-adept people is needed to get maximum benefit from this book. This columnist now knows 10 times more than he did before he read it, but probably a hundred times less than the average college student. However, that average college student is probably not half as interested in language evolution; I am, thereby having an advantage. (Points for that semicolon?)

“Because Internet” is a funny, wise, and deeply informed description of how internet culture is changing human language, especially English. Especially written English. According to, as of June 19, 2019, there were 4,536,248,808 internet users in the world. Put another way, Gretchen McCulloch’s way, over four-and-a-half billion people were writing last year. More people are writing than ever before in human history. Most often they use informal language. 

As they do, a new informal written language is emerging. Among the already-established internet creations are emoji, GIFs and memes, most of which probably seem like silly frills to those who did not grow up with computers but are essential psychic wallpaper to those who did.

Call it a colloquial language if you will. Some of it is based on saving time, some on saving keystrokes and much of it because informal writing encourages creativity. New words widen old concepts, and new concepts widen old words. You can never bathe in the same language twice.

 Hugh Gilmore is a retired anthropologist who formerly studied monkey vocalizations hoping to gain insight into how human language evolved. He lives and writes and scratches his head in Chestnut Hill.



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