A Word, Please: Finding some good amid the gloom

A group of university researchers working with some Facebook folks have recently determined that I'm not a dinosaur. Not yet, at least.

Copy editors like me, who for years have been watching our hard-earned grammar skills get discounted with every poorly constructed Facebook post and semiliterate celebrity tweet, could still be useful one, two, possibly three years from now. All those awful grammar errors you see online every day may not be rendering my talents about as useful as those of your friendly neighborhood milk man.

And, no, I'm not decrying the horrible state of grammar at the hands of modern technology. English grammar itself is doing just fine.

Yes, I know it looks like the Internet age is dragging our language down the tubes. Misspelled Twitter posts, Facebook updates full of misplaced apostrophes and hastily abbreviated text messages — it's easy to interpret them as signs that grammar standards and the language as a whole are in trouble. But it's just not so.

Any scholar in the field, including groundbreaking linguist Noam Chomsky, will tell you that the errors you see everywhere are not causing any long-term problems for grammar, for kids' ability to communicate, or for the language itself. In fact, the Internet isn't doing anything to the language that hasn't been done countless times before. It's just doing it faster.

So, as I've said before, the bad syntax, spelling and punctuation on the Internet pose no danger to grammar standards. But they may pose a danger to me.

As a copy editor, it's my job to enforce a set of standards designed to make writing appear more professional. For example, I apply the American style rule that says that periods and commas always come before closing quotation marks: Joe uses the word "fella." Not: Joe uses the word "fella".

When I see a period after a closing quote mark in American English, I know in an instant that the piece wasn't professionally edited. And I like to believe that even folks not consciously aware of the rule sense that something is amiss when they see it broken. But if online writing renders editing standards unimportant, I could end up like the guy who used to pump your gas.

For years, I've taken the optimistic view. In an age where everyone is a writer and publisher, the extra polish a copy editor delivers separates the quality writing from the pack, right?

Lately I've gotten more pessimistic as I watch what's happening to rules like the one about periods and closing quotation marks. Almost none of the people writing online seem to know the rule. As a result, "fella". is looking more standard by the minute. That's not a good sign for someone who makes a living scooching that period to the left.

But here's why I'm hopeful. Researchers from the University of Michigan's School of Information recently studied hundreds of Facebook posts of the "spread the word" variety. Political messages, pleas for assistance, social comments — every day people put these things on their Facebook pages with a request that others repost the text in the hopes it will go viral.

The researchers were mainly interested in how these memes mutate, but in the process they noticed a certain variable that helps determine whether a message catches on: good grammar.

Messages containing errors "enjoyed only one fourth of the popularity of variants which did not contain them, possibly indicating a notion of grammaticalness," the researchers reported. "This is further supported by a mild negative correlation between the within-meme relative number of English spelling errors for a variant and its popularity."

That's the good news.

The bad news? Throughout the report, when the researchers used quotation marks to call attention to certain words or phrases at the end of a clause, they put the period or comma after the closing quote mark. So maybe my future's not so secure after all.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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