Gretchen McCulloch’s previous works of linguistic genius for The Toast can be found here.
The Wired style guide changed my life. One particular sentence, in fact.
We know from experience that new terms often start as two words, then become hyphenated, and eventually end up as one word. Go there now.
Oh. I thought. Oh.
Wired Style was a book by Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon, but I encountered it on the internet. It would have been sometime in the early 2000s. I was the type of teenager who read help documentation and tech blogs and anything that seemed vaguely linguistics-related, and I was already reading the articles on Wired‘s website, so of course when I stumbled upon its style guide, I read that too.
The thing that stuck in my mind about the Wired style guide was the attitude. I’d read other usage guides — well-meaning gifts from people who thought that having an interest in linguistics was the same as having an interest in the mechanics of writing — but they tended towards the curmudgeonly. But while Strunk & White and their inheritors considered themselves the last thing standing between The English Language and Mortal Peril, Wired Style said, essentially, No. We’re not the guardians of tradition, we’re a forward-facing tech publication, and it’s essential for us to be on the vanguard of linguistic change. Hyphens will drop eventually, so let’s drop them now; capitals will eventually de-capitalize, so let’s lowercase as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
To my teenage self, it was like being handed a crystal ball and a lever with which to move the world at the same time. You mean that I could anticipate the direction that language change would happen in, and help push it there even faster? The power was intoxicating. I was sold — and I’ve written email and internet ever since, with the security of knowing that, if my choices were ever questioned, I could calmly reply “You see, it’s because I follow the Wired style guide.”
(No one has ever questioned me on these choices. It seems that teenage!Gretchen slightly overestimated the number of duels that adults were expected to fight on matters of punctuation.)
But once this door was open, my mind didn’t stop there.
I was captivated by this idea that there wasn’t just one correct language or style out there, as I’d learned in school, but that different authorities had their own subtle variations, and I could make a personal choice between them. I started exercising conscious nationalism in preferring the Canadian spellings of neighbour, centre, syrup, zed. When I learned that British practice was to put non-quoted periods and commas outside the quotation marks, just like you’d do with parentheses, I decided that I preferred its strict nesting logic and borrowed it too, despite the fact that I couldn’t justify it nationalistically. And of course, I introduced a rapid-drop policy for hyphens and superfluous capitals.
But the bigger change was in my attitude. It became clear to me that, as far as language evolution was concerned, my choice was between missing the boat and sticking around on a shore with an ever-dwindling band of curmudgeons, or riding the waves and getting to help steer.
Hence my use of singular they. Now, there does happen to be a plethora of historical evidence for it, but that’s not why I use it. I use it because I just like it. I like having a non-gendered option, because he or she and rewriting to avoid pronouns gets clunky, because I believe in respecting people’s gender identities. I use it to refer to a nonspecific or unknown person because it rolls trippingly off the tongue, and I use it to refer to a specific, known person because it doesn’t yet come completely naturally, but I like what it stands for so much that it’s worth pushing through and setting an example. Using singular they is a political decision, and I’ll fight you on it.
But sometimes my personal style guide isn’t political. Sometimes it’s completely arbitrary. I got an email from a grammar-angry website a few months ago asking me to weigh in on the Oxford comma “controversy.” I figured they were just courting publicity and didn’t deign to reply, but I would have told them that there is no controversy. Oxford comma is a style guide issue: if you write for somewhere that has a policy on it, you follow the policy; if you write for yourself, you do whatever you darn well please. Flip a coin! Sure, you can aim for consistency in formal documents, but there’s no such thing as real comma logic: for every “to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” that you avoid, you risk a “to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.” Thing is, in real life most examples aren’t that confusing, and if they are, you can deal with the confusion itself rather than throwing the comma out with the bathwater. “To God, Ayn Rand(,) and my parents/mother” is unambiguous regardless of comma.
Wired Style taught me what grammar-angry websites still miss out on: language changes, and that’s okay. Speaking informally isn’t being incorrect or lazy, but a deliberate and equally valid stylistic choice.
Oddly, for an internet style guide, Wired Style isn’t available anywhere online. The companion website beloved of my teenage years no longer exists and most of it isn’t even on Internet Archive. The book itself had two print runs, in 1996 and 1999, but hasn’t been produced since, and its e-text isn’t available for nefarious googling nor money. But a decade or two later, depending on how you count, I wanted to see how it stood up to my memories. As a text that tried to predict the future about how we’d write online, would it be eerily prescient or laughably dated? And as a text that had such an impact on me, was it worth the fond memory that I’d been holding it in for so many years?
So I bought myself a used paper copy, second edition, five dollars, and I finally read it cover to cover. Verdict? Well, to use the slang of this era in homage to the previous one, it’s one part hearteyes emoji and one part cryingeyes emoji.
The hearteyes parts were kind of like reading one of those nineties-kid Buzzfeed quizzes: “Oh my god, I remember when we used to talk about meatspace! Hotlinks! Web rings! Cyber- everything! Portals! Newsgroups and chat rooms! Vaporware! Netiquette! Palm Pilots! Chatterbots! The Jargon File!” It’s straightup Web 1.0: no blogs, no Wikipedia, no Urban Dictionary, no Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. Google makes it into the introduction as “an innovative search-and-rank engine developed at Stanford” but the entry for search engines omits it in favour of AskJeeves, AltaVista, Go.com, HotBot, and Inktomi. And I was fascinated to learn that “a librarian named Jean Armour Polly was the first to use surfing to mean exploring the internet” although, alas, the link to her original Well post is now 404’d.
The cryingeyes parts were things like: “Oh dear, you managed to get email and homepage right, but you’re still writing Web site, the Net and the Web?” (I’ll forgive them the capitalized “internet,” because I’m still fighting with my phone’s autocomplete on that one.) “A list of bookmarks is sometimes called a hotlist.” Ahahaha nope. Big Blue as a synonym for IBM is considered “acceptable on first reference.” Yeah, not anymore. “As the Net caught on, and as more and more people started speaking in ASCII…” is not quite the cutting-edge descriptor you think it is. “Talking f2f is sometimes called facemail.” Lolwut. And, in possibly the most internet-nineties sentence ever written: TEOTWAWKI stands for “the end of the world as we know it” and is “the shorthand of Internet survivalists who believe Y2K spells doomsday.”
There also some so-close-yet-so-far parts for which I lack an adequate emoji. An entry for wireless but not wifi, for WTFIGO (what the fuck is going on?) but not plain wtf, for userid and handle but not username, for newbie but not newb or n00b, for OTOH (on the other hand) and IOW (in other words) but not btw, for spam and mailbomb but not DDOS or doxxing. I-Phone stands only for Internet Phone, aka the precursor to Skype. LOL — “this shorthand for laughing out loud is big on AOL.” Meme is only in the Dawkins sense. Viral marketing — “this term plays on the idea of the meme as an advertising tool.” “We accept the prefix smart-, but worry about its overuse.” Bless your nineties hearts, how were you supposed to know we’d be in for smartphones and smartwatches and Upworthy?
Wired Style is an excellent nostalgia trip, to be sure, but how does it stack up as a guide to live by? Here I’m more conflicted. Sure, praising informality and internet language is a breath of fresh air compared to the slow-moving Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook (which finally came ’round to hyphenless email in 2011), and at first glance it’s also a vast improvement over the endless sea of ill-informed pedants that write usage guides. But, like any pedant, Hale and Scanlon sometimes convert their idiosyncratic lexical preferences into mass dictates. Here’s a few bizarre vendettas:
ease of use — Popularized with the advent of the Macintosh, this squishy term should be avoided. Find the synonym that fits the context, like elegance, simplicity, or utility.
user — Overused term for a “he,” a “she,” or a “they.” Try to remember that users are people working at computers, not drug addicts. Also avoid end user.
What makes f2f and spam unremarkable, nay, exciting innovations but user and ease of use unworthy? I mean, sure, I get it — you see a word a few too many times, you get sick of it. Fine. And I don’t care if you want to avoid them yourself, but “I don’t like it” is just not sufficient reason to tell others to. This tension between Wired Style’s ideals and its reality is particularly evident in these two consecutive paragraphs from page 15:
While we’re on company names, let’s tackle the quirky way tech outfits like to style their own names and products. The New Hacker’s Dictionary pokes fun at the “BiCapitalization” and “studlycaps” seen in PostScript and PowerBook. According to the insidery handbook, “too many marketroids think this sort of thing is cute, even the 2,317th time they do it.” We agree with the point, but we stick with company preferences as long as they aren’t too out of line. Resist the urge to tame DirecTV, DreamWorks SKG, and Yahoo!, or to file down the idiosyncratic trademarks that reflect the habits of the computer industry. (But go ahead and avoid typographically ugly all-caps for long names and acronyms: Nynex, Lexis, Nasdaq, USA Today, Sega. When the company is pronounced as a series of letters, however, you’re stuck: MSNBC.)
When we say “Be irreverent,” we encourage you to do the following: Welcome inconsistency, especially in the interest of voice and cadence. Treat the institutions and players in your world with a dose of irreverence. Play with grammar and syntax. Appreciate unruliness.
The one hand giveth while the other hand taketh. Be irreverent, says the radical style guide. But only as much as we tell you to. CamelCase passes muster, all-caps does not. Why? Who knows! It’s easy to imagine a world where they’d decided the opposite. But there’s a cognitive dissonance that comes from celebrating inconsistency and providing all the answers at the same: Hale and Scanlon never throw up their hands and say, “We just don’t care about this one! Do as you please!” It’s like a “no dress code” workplace where everyone miraculously shows up in the same plaid button-down: informal, but tightly conscribed.
To be fair, it’s not entirely Wired Style‘s fault that it slips into didacticism and sometimes even pedantry. It’s a feature of the genre: if you don’t want to be told what style to adopt, why would you be reading a guide to it? (Unless you’re a very particular kind of nerd. <3) Perhaps it was indeed useful advice for less internet-savvy writers taking their first steps online — but it also means that Wired Style is not quite the anarchist linguistic manifesto I remember.
Quite simply, I’ve outgrown Wired Style, and it’s not just because I’ve gotten fluent in emoji instead of emoticons. It’s because I’ve learned to analyze language for myself, to experience the power and subtlety of internet language, to question the hoary old shibboleths invented by misguided 19th-century grammarians trying to make English into Latin. It’s because I’ve realized that what we consider “professional” language isn’t just a matter of boring, stuffy suits, but real ways in which we privilege the voices of people who’ve historically had the most power. It’s because I’ve found better techno-linguistic inspiration than any usage guide: now I talk about language as an open source project, a free lexicon that anyone can edit.
Unlike my teenage self, I don’t need a style guide to protect me when I meet a grammar-peever with red pencils at dawn. I already know that supreme lexicographic power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical academic ceremony.
It’s not a perfectly balanced system — well, democracies and open source projects aren’t perfect either. But we know from millennia of experience that despite the best efforts of authorities and usage guides, a language ultimately belongs to its speakers, all of them. And so, in case it helps to be given permission, let me leave you with, “Go there now.”
Gretchen McCulloch is The Toast's resident linguist. She has an upcoming book about internet language and writes pop linguistics for various places. She lives in Montreal, but actually on the internet at All Things Linguistic.