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What is Happening to Written English?

Is written English becoming spoken English, written down? Certainly e-mails, but even newspaper editorials, academic articles and business letters show increased informality in style. Sentences are becoming shorter, and more direct with increased avoidance of the passive, fewer subordinate clauses and conjunctions and an increasing reliance on noun phrases. Vocabulary of Latin origin is discarded in favour of generally less formal Anglo-Saxon equivalents. The slow-moving process of language change seems to be accelerating under the influence of the electronic revolution. This article examines evidence of these changes looking in particular at newspaper editorials and business communication and considers the implications for teachers of writing.

“This is an exciting time for the written word: it is adapting to the ascendant medium, which happens to be the most immediate, universal and democratic medium that has ever existed.”
Lynne Truss: ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’, 2004

This is indeed an exciting, or at least interesting, time for the written word. We know that all languages change over time, and elements of the written language – syntax, morphology, vocabulary, spelling, style, etc. - change at different rates. New words, for example, seem to come and go, in historical linguistic terms, at lightening speed. In recent years, however, changes in all aspects of written English seem to have accelerated under the influence of what Lynne Truss (2004) calls 'the ascendant medium'. She is, of course, referring to the Internet in all its forms – e-mail, chatting, and the Web.

The print revolution
Before looking at these recent changes it is useful to look upstream at the comparatively steady changes that have taken place over the centuries preceding the Internet revolution. The words quoted above could equally well have been written about the printing press in the middle of the 15th century. Like the Internet no-one was quite sure how to exploit the new technology or where it would lead. For many years the print setters and the traditional scribe existed side by side. As very few people could either read or write at
that time it hardly made any difference to the common man. But eventually the press began to make an impact.

One of the changes was to divorce the written language from the spoken. As Naomi Baron (2000) points out, texts had been written to be read aloud, either as epic poems, speeches, legal or religious tracts. However, under the constraints of the printer, texts became more compact and the structure of sentences regularised.

Other changes were taking place in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. For example, the growth of science, with its need for clear, precise language to get across complex ideas, had an impact of writing. Mass education and the spread of literacy in the 18th C fuelled private reading and the growth of newspapers and the novel. Changes in the spoken language itself were also reflected in writing. Indeed, in recent years it seems that under the influence of the radio, film and television (even before we consider the impact of the Internet), the written language was coming closer once again to the spoken language.

The figure below (Table 1) shows this change in simple diagrammatic terms.

The shrinking sentence
What changes have occurred to the sentence during the period since the development of the printing press? Essentially, the sentence has become shorter – quite dramatically. In a study by Brock Haussamen (1994) using text from a variety of sources, the average
sentence length was shown to have reduced from 40-70 in the period 1600-1700 to the low 20s in the 1990s (Table 2).

Table 2: Changes in average sentence length (1600 to present), after Haussamen, (1994)

Year Sentence length
1600 - 1700 40 - 70 words
1800 - 1900 30 - 40 words
1990s 20s

Other changes were noted in the study.
For example:

The result is shorter, sharper and more direct sentences, which are quicker and easier for the reader to process. In return, however, a greater obligation is placed on the reader to infer the connections between sentences.
We might draw a comparison with changes in popular films. If we watch a Hollywood film made, say, in the 1950s, we may find the pace of the film to be rather slow. The connection between each scene seems to laboured, (e.g. X leaves a room, opening and closing the door behind him. X is then seen opening the door of another room and entering). Modern audiences, however, are used to a much faster moving plot. In return they are expected to work harder in making inferences (and if they fail to concentrate may lose the story line completely!).

‘The Times’ editorials
We can quite clearly see these changes, even over just the last 100 years, in one genre of writing: newspaper editorials. If we look at the first paragraph of the Times editorial from an issue in January, 1904 shown below, there are a number of features which catch the eye.

The Times - Editorial, 1904

The grave character of the announcement which our Tokio Correspondent makes to-day cannot be mistaken. The situation, he declares, has now become "extremely critical" and he adds that, in the absence of some conciliatory action upon the part of Russia, "Japan will certainly adopt within a few days active measures to secure her vital interests," after which “war would become very difficult to avert.” A fortnight has now gone by since that country, in terms which were admittedly courteous, formally requested Russia to reconsider that content of her last Note. The Government of St. Petersburg have not vouchsafed any answer to this communication. They still preserve a profound silence, and they are openly making use of the interval to push on their warlike preparations with ever-increasing haste. Of late these preparations have been more and more in the nature of the steps which nations take only when they contemplate the immediate outbreak of the war. Particularly significant amongst them in the dispatch of the transports Ekaterinoslaff and Kazan from the Black Sea with picked drafts for the Far East. The former vessel is reported to have left Singapore for Port Arthur on Saturday, while the Kazan, with 2,000 men, has passed through the Suez Canal. Russia, in fact, continues to practice the tactics of "haughty dilatoriness" which she has adopted since the negotiations began in August, and which our Correspondent has told us had begun to try severely the patience of Japan more than a month ago. We have already pointed out how unlikely it was that the advisers of the MIKADO would or could tolerate an indefinite prolongation of this attitude on the part of Russia. It is not consistent either with the dignity or with the plain interests of their country to do so. The world cannot feel either surprise or disapproval at their determination, and the determination of the nation whose business they conduct, not to wait indefinitely until Russia chooses to disclose in plain language her real intentions. As she neglects to speak, ……..

We can immediately note a rather 'heavy' use of punctuation. (In the original format quotation marks were placed at the beginning of each line of the quotation, rather than being confined to the opening and closing.) In addition, the 'tone' is more formal, aided in part by the selection of vocabulary of Latinate origin (grave, vouchsafed, haste, despatch, vessel, haughty, dilatoriness, etc.) and partly by the construction of sentences. For example, the sentences beginning, “Of late these preparations…..” and “Russia, in fact, continues…..”, sound distinctly old-fashioned, laden as they are with subordinate clauses. There are other interesting features of style. 'To-day' for example is hyphenated, and there seems to be a tendency to capitalise nouns (Correspondent, Note and Government) that would not normally be capitalised in today's press.

If we compare this with an extract from an editorial from 2004, we can see distinct differences.

The Times – Editorial, 2004

Opportunism is, in one sense, an essential element of opposition. A political party will not obtain power if it cannot persuade the electorate that those currently in office are divided, inept or have run out of steam. If a minister or an administration is stranded in choppy water, it is hardly the duty of the Leader of the Opposition to send out a lifeboat. Michael Howard is entitled to exploit the opportunities presented to him
The best sort, of opportunism, however, is strategic, not tactical. It can be argued, persuasively, that Tony Blair was exceptionally opportunistic between 1994 and 1997. He seized upon any chance not only to embarrass John Major but ruthlessly to dispose of policies and positions that he had inherited from his predecessors. It was shameless and it was entirely sensible. It was the right path to take as a matter of practical politics. It improved the Labour Party's standing in the eyes of the voters that it needed to attract. And, best of all, Mr Blair sincerely believed that he and his colleagues had to embrace fundamental change not merely to perform better at the polls but to be more effective if they won a parliamentary majority.

Mr Howard, just like his two predecessors, has come under internal pressure to chase headlines and engage in tactical opportunism for its own sake. It is not an activity that best suits his personal strengths and the long-term returns are rarely worth the investment. He opted, for example, for a stance on university top-up fees that lacked conviction. The Tories may have found Mr Blair's contortions on higher education entertaining but they did not win themselves converts on the issue. Six weeks after what seemed a momentous political occasion at the time, the Government has steadied itself and politics has, predictably, moved on. Mr Howard has now decided to withdraw from the inquiry into Iraq, intelligence and ……….

Sentences, we quickly note, tend to be shorter with greater 'punch'. Many have 10 or fewer words: for example, at the end of the first paragraph:

'Michael Howard is entitled to exploit the opportunities presented to him. The best sort of opportunism, however, is strategic, not tactical'.

and later, in the second paragraph,

'It was shameless and it was entirely sensible. It was the right path to take as a matter of practical politics.
We can also notice informality in the choice of expressions, 'run out of steam', 'stranded in choppy water', 'send out a lifeboat', 'chase headlines' and in the use of the conjunction 'and' to begin a sentence:

'And, best of all, Mr Blair ….'

The business letter
Another genre that has been changing, even prior to what we can call the Internet revolution, is that of the business letter. The following is a model business letter taken from a letter writing guide of the early 1970s (Lesser, 1971).

Barclays Bank Limited
14 Triffin Street,

5th April, 19…

Miss K. Wilson,
Old Age Pensioners' Home Help Society,
Westfield Road,

Dear Madam,

Thank you for your letter of 28th March, 19.. I shall be very pleased to arrange for your Society to open an account at this Bank.
We should like to have a copy of the rules of your Society if such exist, together with a list of the names and addresses of the members of the Committee who will exercise administrative functions in relation to the affairs and finances of the organization.
When the account is opened, we will ask you to let us have a Mandate (a form for which is enclosed) which embodies a Resolution appointing the bank to be the bankers of your Society, and sets out the manner of operation of your account. This Mandate should of course, accord with the Rules.

I have pleasure in enclosing booklets which describe the various bank facilities, and I shall be pleased to answer any questions which may occur to you.

Yours faithfully,

T. G. Feiring,

It is only 35 years further on, yet the letter seems to come from another era. The layout, use of 'shall', the choice of vocabulary, and the rather verbose style are in stark contrast to today's business letter. Contemporary style guides, for example Modern Business Letters and E-mail (Taylor, 2004), typically make the following recommendations for business correspondence:

These style tips are also recommended for e-mail.

The electronic revolution
Today, we are in what may turn out to be just the early stages of the electronic revolution in writing, or what some people call the post-print era. These new electronic forces for change are the e-mail, chatting and the Web, together referred to by Crystal (2001) as the Language of the Internet. In addition we can include text messaging. As with the earlier technology, the printing press, it may be some time before the full implications of the new technology, and its effect on the structure of standard written English, are realised. As Naomi Baron (2000) says regarding e-mail, 'the jury is still out'.

Let us deal first with what seems to be the least important of the innovations, texting. To many people the text message, with its abbreviations and emoticons (symbols such as :-@ to convey emotions) hardly represents writing at all. Indeed it is unlikely that texting will have much effect upon the mains forms of writing. Teachers of writing may notice some spill-over of abbreviations into students‟ compositions, but this does not seem to herald an invasion. But texting remains an interesting phenomenon, not least because of the huge volume of messages generated each day. In the UK alone 2 million text messages are sent every hour. For some people it may be the only form of written communication they use.

In his study of the Language of the Internet, Crystal (2001) concludes that the Web with its wide variety of web pages, from the huge database to the individualised 'home-page', defies stylistic generalisation. He says,

'For the most part, what we see on Web pages is a familiar linguistic world'.

How this may develop, however, is open to speculation. But it is clear from style guides on the writing of web-pages, as well as from our own casual browsing of home-pages, that informality tends to be the favoured style. It is also evident that the medium lends itself to what might be called linguistic exploration, innovation or just 'wordplay'.

We can look at E-mail and chatting together. Chatting, whether in groups (chatgroups, newsgroups, etc.) or pairs, tends to be at the very informal end of the e-mail spectrum and tends to resemble speech. This brings us on to questions which are often asked: What is e-mail? Is it like speech written down, or letters sent by electronic means? Li Lan, reporting on a study of the use of e-mail by university students in Hong Kong concludes that e-mail is a hybrid,

“ [E-mail] ..is organic, evolving and dynamic, and may indeed embody all the basic training for different writing purposes that we received in formal education. But e-mail writing is also a hybrid between writing and speech (and even between languages), and its users have their own agendas and communication strategies.”

We can see the hybrid nature of e-mail by looking through this list of features of written and spoken English adapted from Baron (2001):

Speech and writing in opposition
Writing is: Speech is:
a monologue
highly structured
syntactically complex
concerned with past and future

a dialogue
linearly accessible only
loosely structured
syntactically simple
concerned with present

E-mail seems to exhibit features from both sides of the opposition. It can, for example, be interpersonal, a dialogue and ephemeral, showing features of spoken English. On the other hand, it can also be objective, a monologue and durable, if we wish it to be so. It is also possible to think of speech and writing, not as an opposition but a continuum with face-to-face speech at one end, „traditional‟ writing at the other and telephones, videophones and e-mail somewhere between the two.

Problems with e-mail.
E-mail has become hugely popular mainly because it is fast, cheap and informal. It serves many purposes. It can be like a telephone call (chatting). It can also resemble a memo (the format – To, From, Subject – is similar), or a letter or a telegram. It is, in part, all of these.

However, there are a number of nagging problems or issues related to the use of e-mail. First of all, although it is popular for its informality, it can often present an unfriendly tone. It is communication 'in the raw'. It is stripped of the polite formulae of business letters, or the clues provided by tone of voice (telephone) or facial expression in face-to-face discussion. In addition, there is a lack of greeting or sign off, or at least no agreed conventions.

Furthermore, the speed and informality of the medium encourages 'sloppiness' in style, grammar, punctuation, the use of capital letters and spelling. There are still no fixed guidelines on the use of e-mail and the stylistic range it can cover. Is there any reason, for example, why it cannot be used for the formal end of the writing spectrum? Is it a suitable medium for expressing, for example, condolences? Finally, and most dangerously perhaps, it is used as a 'protective cover', to say harsh things that the writer would not like to say face to face – 'You're fired', 'Your work is terrible', or worst of all, 'I've found someone else'!

We are still confused by e-mail, and some writers tend to mix and match styles inappropriately. This extract from a letter from a financial institution in the Gulf shows the very informal 'Anyway' (permissible in an informal e-mail), mixed with the distinctly formal 'in due course'.

….. is recognised by ECIS (European Council for International Schools) as the recommended retirement planning company for teachers overseas.
Anyway. I look forward to hearing from you in due course.
Yours sincerely,

Style guides for e-mail are beginning to emerge, as mentioned earlier. Taylor (2004) suggests that as we do not see or hear the recipient of the message we need to 'create electronic rapport', by adding a personal touch to e-mails, whether informal or more formal. Style guides such as this tend to adopt a conservative approach to the medium. They give the impression of trying to tame a wild beast that has broken out of its paddock. As with the teaching of business letter writing, they stress the importance of layout, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. and the need to adopt the appropriate level of formality. The idea that because it is e-mail accuracy does not matter, is not encouraged, especially for business or professional communication.

The ascendant medium and future trends in written English
What does this mean for the future of written English? In the earlier part of the paper we charted the progress of writing, in particular the structure of the English sentence, up to and including the televisual age. Now we need to ask what the effects of the new ascendant medium of electronic communication will be on written English.

Pessimists predict that speed and informality will lead to a general downgrading of standards of written English. Abbreviations and lax attitudes towards punctuation, grammar, spelling and style will creep into written English, not just in personal e-mail messages but across a whole range of genres. Crystal and others, on the other hand, point out that there are signs that e-mail is becoming more formalised and is being employed for an increasingly wide range of purposes. Like other forms of communication, such as letters, or the telephone, e-mail will have both formal and informal uses depending on the context.

However, it does seem likely that the general trend towards informality in writing will increase across a wide range of genres from, as we have seen, newspaper editorials to business correspondence. Of course, it is important not to confuse informality with a lack of accuracy or „sloppiness‟ in writing. A letter can be both informal and accurate. The change towards informality is spurred on in part by the electronic revolution, but also by the general movement towards what is known as 'plain English'. The Plain English Campaign in the UK (www.plainenglish.co.uk) has had considerable success in changing the way that public information (legal documents, government forms, etc.) is written in the UK.

Regarding the English sentence, Haussamen (1994) predicts a continuation of the trend towards shorter and more direct sentences, with fewer subordinate clauses and conjunctions, and an expansion of noun phrases. He also suggests that fragments, run-ons and comma splices (already being seen in advertisements) will become more acceptable. The future of the passive is less clear.

Discouraged in recent years, especially in college handbooks, it may well come back into favour as its general usefulness is recognised.

We can also assume that sentences beginning with conjunctions, such as 'and' and 'but', will become accepted in even the most formal genres, not just in Times' editorials. Punctuation, it seems, will continue to become 'lighter', being used only to clarify meaning. Lynne Truss (2003) expresses fears for the colon and semi-colon, as well as some of the seventeen uses of the comma.

Unknown factors
As was mentioned earlier we are still in the early stages of the electronic revolution, and as with most revolutions, once forces for change are unleashed the eventual outcome is unpredictable. A few decades ago the ascent of television, radio, video and film was meant to mark the end of written communication. Instead, the Internet, and especially e-mail, have come along and given us the opposite - an explosion of writing. It is not just that people are using e-mail instead of letters and other forms of written communication, but a whole generation of young people who would never have thought of sitting down to write a personal letter, are writing e-mails on a daily basis.

A second point is that we cannot be sure that technological innovation has run its course. What new inventions are there around the corner? Computers in the future may respond entirely to voice (the voice-writer), for example, which will, incidentally, make the distinction between writing and speaking even harder to define.

A third factor is the possible development of regional variations in the written language. Spoken English has developed regional varieties, which in the long run are in some danger of becoming mutually unintelligible. It seems unlikely, however, that this could happen to any great extent with the written language.

Changes in the syntax, morphology, vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, and style of written English over the centuries are inevitable and at the same time interesting to observe. However, with the accelerating rate of change we are experiencing nowadays, it is not just a question of interest, but of necessity for those involved in the teaching of writing to keep up to date. Changes are taking place across a range of genres. Newspaper editorials and business letters have been discussed, but these changes are also mirrored in academic papers, technical reports, and legal documents to name just a few. Style guides, the results of research and our own observations can all prove invaluable.

Laurie Bauer, (1994). Watching English Change, London: Pearson Education
Naomi S. Baron, (2000). Alphabet to E-mail: how written English evolved and where it is heading, London: Routledge
David Crystal, Language and the Internet, Cambridge: CUP, 2001
David Crystal, (2001). The Future of Englishes. In Analysing English in a Global Context, Anne Burns and Caroline Coffin, London: Routledge
Suzie Dent, (2003) The Language Report, Oxford: OUP
Philip Gaskell, Standard Written English: a Guide, Edinburgh University Press, 1998
Brock Haussamen, (1994). The Future of the English Sentence. In Visible Language, 28.1, Winter
Li Lan, (2000). E-mail: a challenge to Standard English?, English Today 64, Vol 16, No. 4, CUP
Peter Lesser, (1971). English (Business). London: Pitman
Shirley Taylor, (2004). Model Business Letters, E-mails and Other Business Documents. Harlow: FT Prentice Hall, 2004
Lynne Truss, (2003). Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation. London: Profile Books, 2003