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Tabloid speak

June 13, 2010

The internet gets blamed for a lot of things these days. Misinformation, the decline and fall of western democracy, the corruption of youth and the revival of Rick Astley’s pop career.

Thanks to instant messaging, the internet is also blamed for the corruption of the English language: “lol”, “rofl”, “omg”, “m8”, “l33t” etc are readily used and understood by a certain breed of technorati, detested by others, and completely bewildering to the rest.

Like its cousin txt-speak, this abbreviated, acronymed and mysterious language is blamed for poor grammar, terrible spelling and functional illiteracy amongst the younger generation.

So it was rather pleasant to see the internet blamed for the complete opposite; the use of proper grammar, sentence construction and abandonment of slang and code words in favour of plainer speech.

Carol Midgley wrote for the Times two months ago that The internet is killing the art of tabloid speak.

Tabloid speak is the art of cramming as much information as possible into the minimum of headline space, relying in the process on words that are understood to bear entire conceptual phrases.

As Carol points out, the words used in these headlines are rarely, if ever, used in normal conversation.

They only exist because sub-editors, constrained by space and font size, cleverly invented them to summarise a complex story often in a single-column headline

The internet of course does not suffer from the physical constraints that print suffers from, allowing sub-editors to use full sentences as headlines, rather than pithy phrases.

Had the internet been as ubiquitous in 1989 as it is now, I wonder if we would have seen headlines such as “Czechoslovakian government resigns; Communist Party relinquishes power in the face of half-million protestors”, rather than, as The Sun put it, “Reds Czech Out”.

Admittedly, I think that a rather elegant headline, but these parsed and pithy headlines increase the risk of inaccuracy, or at the very least annoyance. I know several scientists, my wife included, who really detest being described as “boffins” by the tabloids, and who point out that “dinosaur scientist” uses more letters, more space and is less accurate, than “palaeontologist”

It seems the internet cannot win; it is criticised for reducing the English language to acronym and idiom, and criticised for replacing acronym and idiom with full speech.

Still, it gave us LOL cats, so it can’t be all bad…

13 years and seven attempts later, Paul has finally managed to finish The Three Musketeers. Only Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Valliere and The Man in the Iron Mask to go then…
2 Comments
  1. June 13, 2010 6:13 am

    My soul sister spent many years as an English teacher, before she pulled off a permanent defection to History.

    I remember years ago – when text speak first became prevalent and she was on the forefront of fielding moans and whinges about it being “real speak” and why couldn’t her students use it in their essays and stories… that savvy Miss Karen handed out a small but powerful scene from Romeo and Juliet and told her students that if they could successfullly translate Shakespear into text speak so the student sitting beside them could read it aloud to the class… then she would relent and allow them to use text speak in their essays.

    Enough said that it was the first English exercise from there on, at the beginning of the school year and there we no more complaints about not being able to use it.

    The internet is said to be both the downfall and saviour of everything… and I have to say I was heartened to hear at speaker at the Emerging Writers Festival say there is a space for extended writing on the internet and that we’ll see more of it as the cost of print goes up. Yeah – she got a hearty round of applause from me.

    From my perspective, the internet has allowed unparalleled freedom to create and share – some good, some bad… and like everything, you take the good and the bad.

    I do have to admit though – I get thoroughly narked by the use of abbreviated speak and purposeful wrong spelling (like “huni”) just to look cool when there is plenty of room to use correct spelling.

    Now over to my good friend Rick Astley…

  2. adampb permalink
    June 13, 2010 9:17 pm

    As a teacher, the demise of l33t writing skillz and wikkid lolz has taken a gloss off the beauty of the English language. I read something this week that suggested we have an academy to protect the English language from bastardisation like the French and Spanish do.
    But, if Dr Seuss is anything to go by, the rot started years ago. Yet, the creativity and construction of his work is to be admired.
    While there is a wonderful creativity in some of the text speak and net usage, but I tend to think that as writers, we need to carry the torch so to speak, for well written prose and poetry, so that our children know what is “good” literature (in terms of correctly written language). There will always be “bad” literature which as we all know is determined by those who have the most to shout about.
    I still can’t write a text or email without correct spelling and punctuation.
    And if the case for the affirmative wants to submit this post as an example of the detritus that poses as “writing” I’ll be more than happy

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