2016/10 Grammar Advice in the Age of Web 2.0

ENGHere is the latest feature by a member of our project in the new issue of English Today. It is republished on this blog with permission from Cambridge University Press, which owns the copyright to this piece. The original is available at Cambridge Journals Online. To join the discussion, please respond on our website in the comments-box of the announcement of this feature.

Grammar Advice in the Age of Web 2.0: Introducing the new (and keeping the old) language authorities


 A further item inviting contributions to the ‘Bridging the Unbridgeable’ project at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics

When I launched an online survey last December with the aim of learning about people’s practices of looking up usage advice, I anticipated that searching for answers to grammar questions would not differ considerably from what are currently most common practices in searching for any kind of information. The answers are, as a rule, simply looked up online. From a group of 189 respondents, among whom the majority were university-educated language professionals such as linguists, editors, journalists and translators, more than half reported that they preferred consulting online rather than printed sources. The respondents below the age of 25 who reported looking up usage advice in printed books were few and far between (11%). The question that can be consequently raised is what implications this finding has for the future of the printed usage advice literature, which includes usage guides, all-in-one reference books we are researching in the context of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project. What is more, the number of sources that are available on the Internet is growing exponentially, and we need to probe more deeply into the matter to ask which of the available sources are in fact consulted.

Through search engines, the web itself is often consulted on usage questions and is used as a linguistic corpus, a freely available source of hundreds of billions of words of text, many of which are written in English. The numbers of ‘hits’ produced by searches are then seen by users as indicators of general usage preferences. If you are unsure about the plural form attorney generals, you can quickly find out that there are over 3 million instances of attorneys general found online, but very few attorney generals. Search engines are just a point of departure. Further analysis of the popularity of specific websites, however, helps to uncover the identity of linguistic authorities online.

To begin with, what we find online in many ways mirrors the situation in the printed usage advice literature, namely that the prominent publishing houses are still key players on the market. The most popular online usage advice sources are online dictionaries, which are used by 95% of the survey respondents. Albeit many of the popular online dictionaries nowadays are user-generated collaborative dictionaries such as UrbanDictionary.com and Wiktionary.com, in which a handful of dictionary editors is replaced by a large-scale usage panel of lay user-authors (Cotter and Damaso, 2007), the dictionaries that are considered to be the most reliable are those whose names were established well before the internet age, The Oxford Dictionaries Online and Merriam-Webster. Whereas there is no doubt that the reputation of Oxford Dictionaries Online owes much to its name and the fact that the ‘Oxford Dictionary’ remains synonymous for many with the ‘great Dictionary’ (Winchester,2003:2), online dictionaries also score highly on their free accessibility, ease of use, and the speed with which they provide answers to usage questions. These three characteristics are surely of considerable importance in the context of new media. Other online sources with offline equivalents are publishing style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style, APA and MLA style guides, all three of which provide guidelines for academic writing, and style guides of media houses, including the Guardian and Observer style guide and the BBC News Styleguide. The latter category, although intended as in-house manuals that promote the uniformity of journalistic and broadcasting styles, are widely consulted by members of the general public and by a number of outside institutions.

In recent years much has been said about the use of corpora, databases of naturally 1occurring language, for purposes other than linguistic research. Corpus resources that are representative either of a specific genre or of an entire language variety and that often comprise millions of words, such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies, 2008-) and the British National Corpus (2007), include what no other language source does, a plethora of ‘real world’ examples of text. Nevertheless, those using such sources belong to a minority of respondents (28%). In spite of the richness of context and the nuanced insight into usage that language corpora facilitate, they do not cater to what most people expect when searching for advice on usage, namely clear, quick guidance which will enable them to make a choice between alternatives, compare with or compare to, affector effect, disinterested or uninterested …

Real innovations in the usage advice market occur in two different types of online sources. The first is collaborative platforms, Wikipedia, Q&A websites and forums, where a consensus as to what constitutes acceptable usage is negotiated among individuals. Language professionals, translators and editors report that they regularly consult their peers on questions of usage on specialised online platforms. They turn to their own professional community for advice, and it is this community that for them holds the highest position of authority. Lay users also engage in discussions on usage, for example in the process of creating Wikipedia entries on problematical features. These entries are under the watchful eye of many author-editors, and as a consequence, include critically processed content of good quality (Lukač, forthcoming). For all that, Wikipedia is still considered to be a relatively unreliable source. The second innovation is grammar websites created by single authors. Some of the respective online sources are so immensely popular that their authors have become household names. The number of people surveyed who are familiar with the podcast Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing is comparable to the size of the group which is still familiar with Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

If anything, the results of the survey have shown that the established names on the usage advice market have found their place also in new media. Even so, the web allows for a dialogue between experts and lay people alike, who are now provided with platforms for potentially negotiating bottom-up what constitutes correct usage. Moreover, the web allows new players to enter the market, create their own audiences, and position themselves as linguistic authorities. If you would like to assist in exploring this topic further and comment on who (if anyone) is a linguistic authority today, visit our website athttps://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/english-today/.


Cotter, C. & Damaso, J. 2007. ‘Online dictionaries as emerging archives of contemporary usage and collaborative lexicography.’ Queen Mary’s Occasional Papers Advancing Linguistics (OPALS). Online at <http://linguistics.sllf.qmul.ac.uk> (Accessed June 1, 2015).

Davies, M. 2008-. The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 520 million words, 1990 present. Online at <http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/> (Accessed 28 February, 2016).

Lukač, M. forthcoming. ‘From usage guides to Wikipedia. Re-contextualizing the discourse on language use.’ Conference proceedings CLAVIER, Modena 6–8 November 2013.

The British National Corpus, version 3 (BNC XML Edition). 2007. Distributed by Oxford University Computing Services on behalf of the BNC Consortium. Online at <http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/> (Accessed 28 February, 2016).

Winchester, S. 2003. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Google Scholar]

Lukač, Morana (2016). Grammar Advice in the Age of Web 2.0: Introducing the new (and keeping the old) language authoritiesEnglish Today, 32, 2, 3–4. Cambridge University Press. (May 2016). doi:10.1017/S0266078416000134