The internet and the democratisation of English. Part 1: Power to the people

Sue Littleford has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part one:

Magnetic letters The very phrase ‘democratisation of English’ is enough to send shivers down the spine of every self-diagnosed language maven who clings to ‘Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction’ or ‘Don’t split an infinitive’ or (hopefully only in days gone by) ‘English should be more like Greek. Or Latin. Y’know, proper languages.’

Breaking news! That thud you hear in the background isn’t the sound of standards falling. It’s the sound of language remaining fit for purpose.

Over the last few months, I’ve noted more and more blog posts, articles and books that are anti-prescriptivism. Indeed, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s song ‘Word Crimes’ (July 2014) was quite widely pilloried for the number of shibboleths it managed to jam in and many fears were expressed that the – well, let’s be polite here – ‘less aware’ would take it as unadulterated truth and propound True Grammar According To My Teachers while the ‘more aware’ shake their heads in sorrow. There are still so many people posting in online editors’ groups asking for ‘The Rule’ for this or that circumstance, and then arguing about the answers. There is only one correct answer to that question. It depends. It always depends. The rule is, of course, that there are no rules – at least none that hold good for every single case in every single variety of English and in every single register in which it is used. What we do have are norms, set at varying levels of granularity in our language.

Nowhere is more democratic about language than the internet at large. Current estimates put English as the world’s most spoken language and third most common first language, with close to a billion people speaking English in some form.

That’s millions and millions of speakers of different varieties of English (well over 330 million  speakers from countries with English as an official language, with some estimating more like 430 million); speakers with a wide variety of backgrounds, education and needs. All these people have votes equal to the number of times their words are intercepted by the search engines and bots indexing away.

So what will happen? I think that Englishes will, over time – and not too far off at that – start to merge. The differences we keep reminding ourselves of between BrEng and AmEng and AusEng and CanEng and all the other Englishes we edit and proofread will, I think, inevitably become ever more blurred. We might – goodness! – end up with just Eng.

A lot of my editing is of books by academics for whom English is not their main language, and I routinely see that their spelling and punctuation wobbles from side to side of the Atlantic; often swayed by whatever they used for that part of their own work – spellings and punctuation mimic the variety of source material without thinking about consistency in the new piece. With so much international writing and international-team writing, we are already well on the way towards obfuscation of the differences between AmEng and BrEng.

Still, Canadians seem to cope with their own spelling caught between a British rock and a US hard place. The Editors’ Association of Canada: Editing Canadian English (9781551990453) is quite open about CanEng being a hybrid, and accepts that Canadians may write both ‘harbor’ and ‘centre’, taking internal consistency to a more granular level than the typical British or US speaker is used to. It quotes Peter Sypnowich: ‘Henry Fowler declared that American and British English should not be mixed, an injunction that must leave Canadians speechless.’ I fully expect Fowler would be aghast, but I do think Canada is a model that will be followed by other Englishes.

Is this democratisation of our language a race to the bottom? No! How could it be? There will still be the demand for all the different registers – and there will still be a sense of what is well-written and what is more, well, vernacular, but I don’t see English splitting into elite and proletariat versions, and certainly not into non-compatible Englishes, for two reasons.

  1. Globalisation won’t allow it – people need to be able to communicate and English is the lingua franca of much of the world. How will people who need to be able to communicate with each other find it useful to make new and/or stronger distinctions between my English and your English?
  2. Online, people are, I think, less aware of where a particular person is from. The people I communicate with on various forums won’t necessarily know my nationality. We will pick up quirks of a language we like and use them ourselves, spreading them widely. Others will pick them up and spread them further still. And these usages will live or die according to how useful people find them.

Where does this leave copy-editors, in particular? Well, writing a lot of style notes and word lists – if you want the glib answer. People who work with language, as we do, are pretty attuned to different registers and readily absorb a sense of what will and won’t do in a given piece of writing. It will be a challenge if an author demands to know on what authority you made a certain change or recommendation, and it will be harder if that author is old school and clings to ‘What My Teacher Said’. We will have to develop strategies to deal with that, and talk about norms, readability, flow and clarity rather than rules; and remember that there is not now, nor ever has been, only one right way.

It’s often hard to remember that there is no authority handing down the Rules of English to its speakers. Language doesn’t work like that (unless you’re French…) – there is no committee somewhere out there deciding what English usage is right and what is wrong. Dictionaries describe usage – they don’t prescribe or proscribe. There are only the people using English – an awful lot of people – communicating with each other across the world more than ever before, faster than ever before and deciding by mob rule what works and what doesn’t. And do you know? It was always like that. But now it’s big enough and fast enough for us to pull up a chair, grab the popcorn and sit and watch it happen.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller.

Proofread by Alex Matthews.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Originally published October 2014; updated September 2021.


8 thoughts on “The internet and the democratisation of English. Part 1: Power to the people

  1. Maria D'Marco

    G’day Sue,
    Enjoyed your post tremendously. As my editing clients range from the US to the UK to AU to NZ to Japan – no Canadians yet (darn it), I have found myself dropping all kinds of ‘common’ phrases and words from these global Englishers into my speech, emails, blog posts. It can be entertaining at times, as when I forget and say “come over this arvo”, because I’ve been working non-stop with an author from Oz.

    I do hope that the homogenization of English comes sooner, rather than later, and becomes a recognition of the wonderful and profound cultural differences we can all share – and become a larger, grander place for it.

    Thanks again for a wonderful post.


  2. Sue Littleford

    Thanks, Maria, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m also glad you see the likely future of English as A Good Thing. I hope you get some Canadian English to edit soon. It’s fun!

  3. Chris Lindop

    What an interesting read. Your point about origins being less obvious online hadn’t occurred to me, but it is surely significant. Thanks Sue!

  4. Dominic Fisher

    Hurrah! As someone from the English Language Teaching field rather than editing per se, it’s very refreshing to read a succinct demolition of the prescriptivists.

    1. Sue Littleford

      Thanks, Dominic. Prescriptivism can be very attractive – a clear (ish) set of rules to follow, if only everyone knew about them and obeyed them. A neat, orderly, safe and secure world. But so unrealistic! I’m afraid they need to acknowledge that they can’t control people’s use of language. They may try to apply the brake, but it’s not going to work.

  5. Valerie Spanswick

    This very subject came up in a forum discussion about where to put quote marks with punctuation at the end of a sentence. Since I often comment on blogs (not just grammar blogs) with all kinds of English speakers, I sometimes worry that other readers will think I’m doing it wrong. Having lived in both the US and UK, I do see much more crossover all the time – and I think that’s a good thing. I agree with you that we will likely see some hybrid, global English emerge. But I will never be comfortable saying tomahto.

  6. Sue Littleford

    Tomayto/tomahto! I don’t anticipate being comfortable saying erb for herb, either! But I’m not going to tell someone they’re wrong if they do. It’s a shame so many people are ready to jump in and criticise others on the basis of faulty “rules” and mistaken beliefs, or just from a lack of awareness that the other person isn’t from your neck of the woods and therefore uses a different variety of English. I comment far less than I used to on group discussions in places like LinkedIn because of the narrow views of too many of the participants. It got tiresome to keep witnessing all the arguing over small points of regional difference on fatuous grounds! But I guess it will take more time yet for the tendency towards a common English to quieten things down.


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