Literacy in the Internet Age

I was recently asked to do a talk at a Rotary meeting on the topic of literacy. I felt honoured, and decided to talk about the effect of the internet on literacy, especially the changes occurring with youth in their communication online, and even offline. Here is my presentation:


The Egyptians used various icons of animals, plants, people and other symbols to tell a story about their lifestyle thousands of years ago. It was a simple way for them to communicate however the ‘pictograms’ that are popularly associated with this ancient language are not literal but partly representative of letters in their alphabet.

Hey, but our English language doesn’t use iconic symbols, isn’t that right?



Many of you, especially if you utilise social media, will be familiar with emoticons. They are a product of the internet age; as young people especially can replace whole words, mostly communicating a feeling or emotion in just a few key strokes on their mobile phone or computer keyboard. The key strokes combination is translated into an icon, such as a heart or a smiley face, which tells the person at the other end of the communication that they love or like something, or are happy about something. Replace the colon in the smiley face combination with a semi-colon, and the result is a winking smiley face that suggests the person is joking about something or is telling the recipient not to take what is said too seriously.

So what has brought on this iconography on social media?

Before the internet, we all learnt how to read and write, and our communication with each other was mainly verbal face to face or we wrote a letter. Some of us may have learnt to type, but even then, we reserved typed letters for formalities such as job applications and business letters.  Most of us had the ability to write quickly and efficiently, and were unrushed as replies took weeks to get back to us. Perhaps we’d end a letter with a smiley face or a sketch, but that would be it. The phone was the most immediate communication available for contact at a distance, and again our verbal abilities had no need for icons and symbols.

The internet has only really being with us since the 1990s, but its impact has been enormous. Suddenly, people could communicate in writing with each other instantly, and many without keyboard skills had to search and tap with one or two fingers. Facebook only emerged 10 years ago, along with Twitter and other social media. Social media became available not only on computers but on smart phones and other devices such as iPods, iPads etc.

Young people wanted to keep in touch with their friends but their lack of keyboard skills made it a slow process. The answer was to create a kind of shorthand that used abbreviations and symbols to get the message across faster. A colon and a close bracket looked like a smiling face on its side, a less than sign and the numeral 3 combined to make a heart on its side. And thus the first crude emoticons took form. Social media saw the potential, and made it possible to transform the crude forms into proper smileys, hearts and a host of other pictograms.

Actually, the crude emoticon smiley face has been around since the 1980s, but its use did not come into its own until the internet age.

Now, the other side of this need to shorten social media texts is to abbreviate, and young people especially have created so many abbreviations that a not so social media literate person is left confused by what is almost another language.

Try this one for size: ‘OMG! M8 IDK cos YOLO. BTW GTG but BRB’.

Who knows what I said? It translates to ‘Oh My God! mate, I don’t know because you only live once. By the way, I’ve got to go but I’ll be right back’.

Some of the other popular abbreviations include:

ATM: Not a banking device for withdrawing money but ‘At the moment’.

IRL: In real life

BBY: Baby

Soz/sozza: Sorry

LMS: like my status

ILY: I love you. This is more a casual term for affection rather than something more serious.

LOL: Laugh out loud

ROFL: Roll over floor laughing

The act of abbreviation will even extend to verbal conversation. You will often hear teenagers now saying LOL, YOLO and shortened or re-invented words.

Young people have also invented their own slang terms that they will use on and off their online chat sessions. Here are a few that are gaining acceptance into the language:

Derp: Something that is silly or dumb, clumsy

Nek Minnut: Next minute

Troll: Someone who spans, tricks or deliberately insults and criticises others.

Fan girl/boy: A girl or boy who is an excited fan about something or someone.

Facepalm: The act of expressing a sense that something/someone is foolish, hence slapping your forehead, but instead of doing it, you write or say the word.

Selfie: A photo of yourself taken by yourself (usually on a mobile phone or iPod)


Teens will also leave out words and punctuation in order to further shorten what they are texting or saying. For example, ‘Nek minnut trips over’ instead of ‘In the next minute he trips over’.

A number of existing words have been given new meaning or adapted for the internet and computer usage.

‘Text’ is now a verb used to describe the act of keying in text for a mobile phone message.

‘Hardware’ has been adapted from its common meaning of hammers, nails etc to refer to the physical parts of a computer.

Nobody’s in trouble when you ‘save’ on a computer. You are simply retaining the data and information on a digital ‘file’ to the computer.

You might still get caught in the ‘web’ but there is no spider to bother you. The web describes the visible portion of the internet that embraces web sites throughout the world.

You won’t catch fish or butterflies with this ‘net’, which is short for the internet or the network of computer servers that service the web.

There is no need to drive anywhere to go to these ‘addresses’ as they are the coding for finding web sites on the internet.

Friend has become a verb as ‘to friend someone’ or include them on your social media account, giving them access to your ‘posts’ that have nothing to do with letters but statements and comments you place on your social media account site for others to read.

There is no small rodent involved when the computer user talks about their mouse, which is the device used to ‘navigate’ around any computer program without keying in directions.

Just like finding your place in a book, you can use a digital ‘bookmark’ to mark websites that you use regularly, enabling you to find them easily.

When I talk about the ‘cloud’, you don’t have to look up or out the window. I’m not talking about those puffy things in the sky. The ‘cloud’ on the internet is a storage site online where you can place your documents and digital photos, and access them from any computer linked to the internet anywhere in the world.

‘Ports’ are no longer somewhere ships can dock, but digital pathways on your computer.

But the internet has also made it necessary to create new words to describe things that don’t exist in the physical world. Here are some new terms that have come out as a result of the internet and computers:

Software: Digital system that enable computer users to perform different functions such as wordprocessing, displaying and manipulating digital photos, keeping accounts and so on.

Browser: A software package that lets you view web pages, graphics and most online content.

Email: Essentially electronic mail. Email software enables users to send and receive messages, letters, documents and photos in digital format.

Blog: Short for ‘web log’ which is a modern online writer’s column. People can talk about anything or create blogs on specific topics that interest them, and others can read these blogs. The act of creating a blog is called ‘blogging’.

Download/Upload: The process of transferring a file from online to your computer or from your computer to online.

Malware: A malicious software used by hackers to gain access to your computer and files.

Phishing: Methods used to defraud people of their personal accounts.

Punctuation marks have also not escaped the impact of the internet on our language. People have adapted some punctuation marks to get around issues presented by this new medium for expression. At this stage, social media users cannot italicise words to place emphasis on words or phrases. Instead they use forward strokes before and after the word or phrase.

Similarly, the rarely used tilde (~) has been brought in to replace a dash for quotes and the author of a quote.

The asterisk (*) is used to indicate a corrected word or phrase and can be placed before or after the word or phrase.

The hash (#) has also been given new life as a hashtag that is used to highlight a topic in social media, allowing others to find comments and posts that are tagged as such.

The ‘at’ sign (@) has been given the job of linking to a person’s profile and in email addresses. It is also growing in use on signs, posters and advertisements as a contemporary sign for ‘at’ such as ‘come to the show @ 4pm’.

It is curious that these rarely used punctuation marks are now gaining new jobs while common punctuation marks – like commas and apostrophes – are being abandoned. Young people especially, don’t want to be burdened with applying traditional grammar rules if they can get away with dispensing with punctuation and spelling, to get the message across as quick and as efficient as possible. Social media has become a creative ground for a new kind of shorthand – Words and phrases are shortened or abbreviated, any ‘unnecessary’ words are dropped, and symbols used to convey whole words and phrases.

What does this mean for literacy in our Brave New Generation? Literacy has become more visual and less about words and their construction. Ambiguity has crept in where words and misspellings, mis-punctuation can mean other things. The new generations don’t know the difference between the possessive itsand the contraction it’sfor it is. They mix up there, theirand they’re. And yourand you’re. They have no idea of past and present tenses.

However, the evolvement of a new form of shorthand visual language demonstrates how the Brave New Generation can adapt to a new way of communicating. Language is always evolving. English is a complex language with roots in German, Latin languages, French, Norse and older European. We don’t use the thee’s and thou’s of an older form. Literacy is about effectively been able to understand each other through our written and spoken word. Keep your hand on the tiller to explore the seas of the internet age.

Oh dash … double dash!

English: CMOS 16 cover image.

English: CMOS 16 cover image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was intrigued when Port Yonder Press in a Facebook discussion talked about the em dash being used in dialogue (among other things) when speech is interrupted. This was according to the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the bible for editors in America. My editing experience is from an Australian perspective where we often use the ellipsis points (…) as an indication of interrupted speech or where words are omitted. I thought I’d go to the Australian Style Manual for authors, editors and printers, and what I found was quite interesting.

I discovered that the manual talks about the 2-em rule which can be used for sudden breaks and omissions. I go on to quote here my sixth edition on page 107:

A 2-em rule can be used to mark an abrupt break in direct or reported speech: 

I distinctly heard him say, ‘Go away or I’ll —— ‘ 

In this instance a space is used to separate the rule from the preceding word because a complete word is missing. If only part of the word is missing, no space is used:

It was alleged that D—— had been threatened with blackmail.

The double em dash is solid in the manual but I just had to use two em rules in succession here.

The use of the ellipsis is differentiated in the manual (page 110) in that they are primarily used to show an omission of a word or words from quoted material. It goes on to say that ellipsis points can also signify indecision and incompleteness.

Well, as they say (hey, it’s always those clever people called ‘they’!), you learn something new every day.

That’s it full stop …

full stop

full stop (Photo credit: same_same)

Alas, the sentence is being given a major hammering with the new generation who ignore the purpose of the tiniest punctuation in any language – the full stop, aka full point, point, period and dot. It is recognised as the mark that ends a sentence and is followed by a space before the next sentence (or paragraph) begins. A simple sentence contains just one verb, while the complex sentence can contain several clauses … but that is another story.

I grew up calling it a full stop, so forgive me if I’m a little nostalgic … but one has to settle on something. But I digress. The full stop can also be used at the end of a sentence fragment – a phrase if you like. That means there is no verb, for example, A cup of rice.  The full stop has a few other uses ~ as the decimal point in numbers and currency, in numbering, subsections and paragraphs in a document (for example, Section 7.3). And time, such as 10.30pm.

The full stop has even entered the digital age as the dot in web and email addresses. You will find it at the end of some abbreviations. In Australia, these are abbreviations that end with a letter that is not the last letter of the full word, for example, Rev. for Reverend. But it’s Dr for Doctor because the abbreviation ends with the last letter of the fully spelt out word.

Acronyms (such as ASEAN and Qantas) used to take full stops between each letter, but this is no longer the case in Australia, and I strongly suspect in America and Britain as well.

Those three dots …

A quite handy little punctuation device is the ellipsis (or plural ellipses), those three points that indicate that something has been omitted or in dialogue, a hesitation or something left unsaid, unfinished. I see it used a lot in articles and stories, but some writers think they can use it instead of an en dash or colon, where something is introduced as a statement arising from something the writer is saying. For example, say I wanted to qualify something I was writing  – like this, but instead put … You can see that the ellipses are used wrongly.

The style rule in Australia for ellipses is to put a space either side, and when found at the end of a sentence, not to add a period. Used correctly, ellipses can really liven up a narrative, and can be used, say, instead of the speaker ‘trailing off’. Do you use ellipses? I do …

Dashing off

Editors know them more than writers, but the humble dash takes various forms and tasks. A lot of writers will plug on with the lowly hyphen (-) which is the shortest of all the dashes. Its job really is not to separate parts of a sentence nor as a substitute for ‘to’ such as in 1945 to 2001. The hyphen is used to join two words to create a single entity, which can lead eventually to dispensing with the hyphen altogether. Take the word ‘cooperate’ for example. Some publications continue to use the hyphen as in ‘co-operate’ to avoid mispronunciation while the accepted form now has no hyphen. That is because it is in common usage and people know how it is pronounced. Two words may be hyphenated to become a single adjective as in ‘short-term solution’. And the danger here is to hyphenate when there is no implied adjective.

The second job of a hyphen is to split a long word in column formatting so as to create an even margin on the right side of the column, or as close to even as possible. Hyphenation then occurs between syllables to avoid an awkward cut of the word.

After hyphens there are two longer forms of dashes with names taken from early typography – the en dash and the em dash. I just used an en dash (roughly the width of the letter ‘n’) to separate the last phrase from the main sentence. Here it can be used instead of the colon to denote something following. When it is used with a space to either side of it, the en dash acts as a separator. This is crucial and a cause for many errors among writers. When you remove the spaces, the en dash joins two parts, not like the hyphen, but roughly to mean ‘to’, as in 1945–2001.

The last dash form – the em dash – is similar to the en dash in that it can be used as a separator, but without spaces. Its use is a matter of publication style or an editor/writer’s preference. The em dash—used like this—separates the verb phrase here instead of using commas, and therefore highlighting the phrase more and avoiding confused phraseology.

What to do with the roaming comma

What to do indeed! Some writers like to sprinkle commas around like confetti while others will be very miserly in their use. Add to this a departure of comma style in America to Australia and Britain. It looks like such a tiny little tadpole but commas do love to roam and drastically alter the meanings of sentences and dialogue.

Take this quote borrowed from the good Bible and filtered through my unreliable memory. “I promise you today you will be with me in paradise.” I purposely left out any commas, now see what happens when I insert a comma. “I promise you today, you will be with me in paradise.” Or “I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise.” 

In the first instance, I inserted the comma after the word ‘today’, which means that the speaker (Jesus) is making a promise today that the other person (one of the criminals on a cross beside him) will go to heaven at some unknown time. By inserting the comma before ‘today’ however, Jesus is making a promise that the criminal will join him on that day in heaven.

The comma is meant to create a brief pause in a sentence or dialogue. It can also be used to separate items in a list, such as: I saw monkeys, tigers, giraffes, lizards, snakes, dingoes, kangaroos and parrots at the zoo. Note that the second last item does not carry a comma before the ‘and’.

There are so many uses for commas that I could devote several blog posts to its use and abuse. And probably will. A common abuse of the comma is to use it to join what should be separate sentences, especially when the writer goes on a new tangent that makes the insertion of the comma a stalling point for any reader.

Commas are used after dialogue, again to produce a pause and a break before the attribution (the he/she said). Here is where American English can differ. In Australian style, the comma is placed directly after the last word of dialogue, and before the closing quotes. “I’m off to the circus,” he said.  But in-sentence quotes take the comma after the closing quotes. The boy told his sister “I’m off to the circus”, as he headed for the front door.

It is often a matter of personal preference for the writer as to whether to place commas before and after names, for example, in a sentence. The sawmill boss, Gus Jones, was a tough man. Or The sawmill boss Gus Jones was a tough man. Either way, the the meaning is clear. However, once a writer adopts a style in regard to this, he or she should be consistent.

The naughty apostrophe

The bane of an editor’s life is to walk into a department store or see an advertisement on TV or in the newspaper (or online!) that is a victim of the naughty apostrophe. This apostrophe likes to turn CDs and DVDs into CD’s and DVD’s. It likes to make a possessive  its into it’s and do other nasty things like mixing up plural possessives with singular. Alas, it is the English language that can be held partly to blame. Let’s begin with our new high tech CDs and DVDs. To avoid confusion, we do use an apostrophe in cases such as dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s. Otherwise you would mistake it for is and ts,  which can only have readers scratching their heads. But there is no confusion when pluralising CD to CDs, for example,  and therefore the usual rule of plurals applies.

When I was just out of school, I often made the common mistake of confusing its and it’s. Until I learned the simple solution. While nouns take an apostrophe in the possessive form before the s, pronouns do not. But usually the pronoun changes form, for example, from he to his, you to your. However, when it comes to its, the adding of the s comes without an apostrophe. The simple answer is it’s always is a contraction of either it is or it has.

The whole process takes on another level of difficulty with people when they encounter the possessive forms of singular and plural nouns, and nouns already ending in s. Take this example for instance: The dog ate  the cat’s food. Or: The dog ate the cats’ food. The first example refers to just one cat, and therefore the apostrophe comes before the s, but in the second case, there are more than one cat, and therefore the apostrophe comes after the s.

Now consider the following examples: The Jones’s house is down the road. The Camerons’ house is around the next corner. The first already ends with s and in most modern styles these days comes with the apostrophe then s, although in some house styles, it is still just an apostrophe and no s. In the second instance, the name of the people is Cameron, and since we speak about the family, we add an s for plural, then an apostrophe. Some editors may also argue in favour of Joneses’ house for the first example.

What happens if we make a possessive of a plural noun. Usually we add an s apostrophe  but some nouns have a specific plural form, such as children, which then takes apostrophe before the s.

You can imagine how this can muddle a lot of people’s thinking. Food for thought.

A Twitter friend asked about Whose and Who’s. Examples will demonstrate the difference: e.g. Whose car is that? and Who’s the person driving that car? The first is a possessive of car which could be turned around to say: That car belongs to who? The second example applies the contraction of Who is.