2016/11 The Internet’s (New) Usage Problems

cover-hielkeHere is the last feature by Hielke Vriesendorp, a research master student of Linguistics at Leiden, 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.

The Internet’s (New) Usage Problems


A further contribution from the Leiden University Bridging the Unbridgeable project

In the previous issue of English Today, Lukač (2016) discusses the increasingly important role of online language authorities for users of the internet who are looking for usage advice. However, prescriptivism also reaches these users when they are not actively looking for it. They encounter advice in newsfeeds in different social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, and some of them join online groups to discuss usage problems. The standard language ideology seems to have established itself firmly on these new platforms, adapting itself in the process. Articles on usage shared on social media are almost without exception in the form of lists with eye-catching ‘clickbaity’ titles (e.g. ‘7 Grammar Mistakes That Make You Look Dumb’), and their most important topics differ strongly from those of traditional prescriptivism. An analysis of 75 online articles and blogs found through Google shows that most of the listed usage problems are about the confusion of (near) homophones and about punctuation (see Table 1 for the five most frequently listed usage problems I encountered). The incorrect use of commas is mentioned most often, while the differences between you’re and your, it’s and its, and affect and effect share a second place.

Table 1: Most frequently mentioned usage problems in 75 online articles

This is quite a shift from the traditional topics of prescriptivist discourse. Straaijer’s Hyper Usage Guide of English (HUGE) database 1 includes 77 usage guides from which 123 usage problems have been selected. These deal with syntactic, morphological and lexical issues; for the ones treated most frequently, see Table 2. The list includes no homophones, and apostrophes are the only topic on punctuation. At the same time, two of the five most recurrent usage problems in HUGE are never mentioned in the articles online: shall vs. will and the placement of only. Different to/from/than was mentioned only four times in my online collection, and who vs. whom ten times. Split infinitives and stranded prepositions, two other famous ‘old chestnuts’ (Weiner, 1988: 175) ranking high in HUGE, were found only three times online.

Table 2: Most frequently mentioned usage problems in the HUGE database

This deviation from traditional prescriptivism can also be seen in the priorities of people who actively engage in language discussions online. In a survey which I conducted among members of grammar groups on Facebook, respondents gave their own personal Top Five of what they considered to be the worst grammatical errors in English. In their answers (N = 46), (near) homophones and punctuation were mentioned very often as well (Table 3).

Table 3: Most frequently mentioned usage problems (Facebook group survey)

With the exception of pronoun case confusion and subject-verb agreement, old chestnuts were mentioned by only three respondents. Of the five most frequent usage problems in HUGE, only lay vs. lie and who vs. whom were mentioned by any respondents at all (three times each). Preposition stranding was mentioned only once, and split infinitives were never mentioned at all. In fact, two respondents named the avoidance of split infinitives in their Top Five.

The analyses above suggest that the prescriptivist discourse on social media has three main characteristics: it focuses on the confusion of (near) homophones; it focuses on punctuation; and participants in the discourse are relatively uninterested in old and well-established usage problems, or are even critical of them.

In my view there are two possible explanations for this. Firstly, it is possible that the internet is a more democratic place for usage debate than usage guides are: anyone can write a blogpost or a tweet on how inexcusable the spelling of your welcome is, while few people are in a position to publish a usage guide. This new group of people who share their opinions online might not be too concerned with rules based on Latin (such as the split infinitive rule), and seem to be more concerned with mistakes that are easier to pinpoint, such as confused homophones and a lack of punctuation. Another explanation could be that the internet has enabled written language to be used much more often and in much more informal contexts, so that language users are not required to pay as much attention to spelling and punctuation as they are in more formal contexts. The online prescriptivist’s reaction to this would then be to campaign against this ‘carelessness’ in writing.

In order to find out whether these explanations can account for the innovatory characteristics of online prescriptivist discourse, I would like to invoke your help. To find statistical evidence for the influence of the internet on prescriptivism, I am looking for more respondents to fill out their Top Five of most important grammatical errors. You can find the survey on the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog at https://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/english-today/. Your help will be greatly appreciated.


1Accessible via http://huge.ullet.net/.


M. Lukač 2015. ‘Grammar advice in the age of Weg 2.0: Introducing the new (and keeping the old) language authorities.’ English Today 32 (2), 3-4.

E.Weiner 1988. ‘On editing a usage guide.’ In E.G. Stanley and T.F. Hoad (eds.), Words. For Robert Burchfield’s Sixty-Fifth Birthday. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, pp. 171183

Vriesendorp, Hielke (2016). The Internet’s (New) Usage Problems. English Today, 32, 3, 18–19. Cambridge University Press. (September 2016). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0266078416000365