English Steps Forward

Every 1000 years or so, writing takes a significant step forward. Starting in the late 1970's and becoming fully entrenched in the early 1980's, English took that step forward so that, now in the 21st millenium, these huge strides forward are starting to reach the common person so that virtually everyone can benefit. To understand this, lets first take a step back a few thousand years and see how we got to the 1970's:

YRSGTHRSLYBTHRDNTRNGTHCPTLCNSNNTLTTRLTTHRDRSFGRTHRSTT. (translation: Years ago authors only bothered entering the Capital Consonant letters - let the readers figure the rest out.) THENSOMENICEFELLOWINVENTEDVOWELSTOMAKEITMOREREADABLE (translation: Then some nice fellow invented "Vowels" to make it more readable.) Then they added lower case letters and spaces so you could see where words and sentences started and ended This made it a lot easier And for years that sufficed Then they added punctuation, you know, to make it easier to read! Do you see what I mean? I knew you would.

Then, just a few years before the great step forward..womans libbers came and he/she/it/they made it/her/him harder to understand for the average male/female/person. He/She/it said it is an improvement but everyone really knew that it really was a step backwards for clear communication.

Fortunately THAT mess only lasted a few years, until the singular they was invented (around 1975-1980). And that person that invented it, THEY were kind to us, getting rid of all the he/she/it (don't say that too fast by the way) and replaced it with "they" which can be used in the singular form. This wasn't the great step forward, this was just cleaning up a short term mess that had been created.

With that mess out of the way, it was time for written English to take the next huge step forward. People were primed to see an improvement in written communication.

Computer geeks came and said "what's with all the verbage to explain simple concepts. Writing can be SO misunderstood, after all, all it has is letters, spaces and punctuation, it's missing all emotion - and that was sad :-(. So they invented emoticans :-) Now everyone can be understood much better than English as she was writ in the 1970's.

In business writing emoticons are now (1995) mostly acceptable in email AND on paper, but not yet (1995) in formal writing, legalese or bureaucratese, . Give it another few and I can see legal documents containing emoticans:

The party of the first part :-), hereinafter known as Joe, is suing the party of the second part :-(, hereinafter known as Jack. This letter clearly demonstrates that Jack was very mean :-( and hurt Joe. Now we are going to sue Jack for all he is worth<BEG>. And Joe is going to have to pay us everything he owns<rofl>. We think Jack will have a miserable Christmas {:{(}}} and will probably get a lump of coal. SFAIKT Jack is a mean mean person. TTFN SYIC (See You In Court)

Well, maybe it will never be used in legal writing or bureaucratese, after all - half the point of legalese is to make sure no one, including the person who wrote it, can understand it without spending many hours (billable of course) studying it. So, I guess it will never be used in court until some judge demands it be used. (Hmmm... I wonder why lawyers accept punctuation, spaces, vowels and lower case letters?<g>). And the purpose of bureaucratese seems to be to make sure that bureaucrates can laugh at the common person and make them waste time trying to jump through their hoops, all for the amusement of the bureaucrats. But there is hope for formal writing - at least there a few people believe in the concept of clear communication, and some day, like with the other changes, the people fighting for clear communication will win the battle.

Note SYIC is the only one that I made up, all the rest are commonly used and explained below.

Here are some emoticans you NEED to know. These should be taught in grade 2 school at the latest: :-) <g> - 2 of many different "Grins" (for the first one, look sideways). These are used to make sure people don't think you are insulting them, it lets them know you think you are funny in what you just said<g>. ;-) - Grin & Wink ;-( - Frown or Sad face  {:-{)}}} - Santa Clause grinning.

Note that any other form that looks like a grin or frown - probably is. In my experience, people experiment with the grin options more than any other emotican - I guess a way to express their individuality! <:-<)}}

<bg> - Big Grin

<BEG> Big evil Grin

<rofl> Roll on Floor Laughing (considered impolite to use when YOU made the joke)

SFAIKT - So far as I can Tell. Yes the C turned into a K. SFAIKT this come from history where SFAIK means So Far As I Know, and some bad spellers started to say SFAIKT as well.

FWIW - for what it's worth

TTFN - comes from Tigger (as in Winnie the Pooh's Tigger)- Ta Ta For Now.

HTH - Hope this Helps

LOL - Laugh Out Loud

RTM - Read The Manual

BTW - By The Way

BTW, you really should memorize all the above ones - at least so you can recognize them when someone else uses them.

There is one other one you might need to know. It doesn't show up as much anymore, but it goes like this:

RTFM.  One "Christian Internet" book defined it around 1992 as "Read the Funny Manual" I emailed the author expressing my horror telling him - with a description like that, he was going to have naive but basically good people putting RTFM in their emails. I spelled out exactly what RTFM means, (He got everything correct except what the F stood for.) Suffice it to say, putting RTFM on Sybase (and many other) newsgroups was grounds for losing access to the system. So, if someone sends you RTFM and you know them - ask them if they realize they are swearing when they say that. If you don't know them you might prefer to just tell them "I'm sorry, I don't listen to people who swear in person, nor in emails." And obviously, except as a dissertation like this, I hope you will never use RTFM.

Now, I firmly believe that emoticans and their related compatriots are a huge improvement on the age old skill of writing (no <g>).

Despite my "tag line" above, the strange thing I find is that the concept of writing improved from time to time until punctuation was invented. Once punctuation was invented, the concept of writing stayed stagnant with no real improvement until the so called "lower class illiterate geeks" came into the picture. Maybe it can be said that "Every time a lower class of people started using writing as communication, writing took a significant step forward." (Note: I myself belonged to that class of people at the time this was step forward was taking place.) To be honest and quite serious, I don't know why authors didn't invent something along the line of emoticans hundreds of years ago. I have so many times read supposedly good literature, and because I didn't understand the emotions they were trying to portray, I missed the point until someone said -"Can't you see they are trying to be funny" or "Can't you see the deep sad emotion they are writing with" - If I had been smarter in high school, I would of said "No, I can't see it - maybe we should invent emoticans so that everyone CAN see it -- literally."

So, now everyone can SEE the emotion in writing, not just the elite. Emoticans bring the joy and value of writing as a communication tool to those of us who are writing challenged<g> even people like me who barely passed remedial English in University (even though I subsequently had published 100's of articles, books, chapters in books and been a technical reviewer for more books)! Is it just possible that, for the past nearly 1000 years, intellectual snobs have purposely kept emoticans out of writing so that they could keep the skill of communication to themselves? If so, they are now losing the snobbery battle now that the people they were trying to supress invented emoticans.

Still on a serious note - if you want to write better, you should also read the extremely valuable and well written (even though it has no emoticans) book: Eats, Shoots and Leaves. It is a little difficult at first, but wow, it helped me understand the correct use of punctuation like nothing I took in school or University did.

Personally, I think writing should be a tool to clarify communication and any old fashioned rules that get in the way of clear communication should be removed from the language.

Update: This came out 2002/6/13: Robert Dutt eChannelLine

On behalf of MSN.ca, Dr. Neil Randall, an English professor at the University of Waterloo, has done the "first-ever far-reaching study of online language" in this country. That's oddly appropriate, given that acronyms and smileys are likely used more often than "traditional English" by the computer-sciences-heavy crew at U of Waterloo.

According to the study, the young get online talk. No kidding. Eight-six of survey respondents under 20 were able to determine what "LOL" stood for. Only 60 per cent of the 20-34 crowd knew it, and from there, it just dropped off dismally. Only 28 per cent of users over 35 knew the acronym. But emoticons? Turns out, we Canadians are a smiley lot. Ninety-one per cent of those surveyed between 20 and 34, and fully 84 per cent 35 and over whip out the occasional :-) when composing an e-mail or chatting online, and 86 per cent use finger-saving acronyms like G2G or TTYL when doing e-mail. (Oddly, only 76 per cent use them in instant messaging, which has always seemed a haven for the hardest of the hardcore emoticon and acronym addicts to us.

Over half of us make up our own acronyms, and those of us who use them apparently believe that emoticons express our feelings and individuality online.

That's all fine and good when it comes to personal mail and correspondence, but when it comes to business, we turn... well... typically Canadian. Less than 20 per cent of us use emoticons in business-related e-mails, and three-quarters of us include a proper salutation in e-mails. Heck, 70 per cent of us even do in instant messages. (I'd have to assume that "salutation" in this context is something more formal than "Yo, dude. 'Sup?")