Online communication is typically less formal than offline writing, but not always. And you still want to look good, whether composing a text, email, post, tweet, or blog.
Relevant issues include grammar, usage, and style. Grammar relates to how sentences and words are constructed, usage to rules and recommendations about alternative ways to spell, capitalize, and punctuate, and style to the flair in how you write.
In part because language evolves over time, much of this isn’t set in stone. In contrast to 100 years ago, it’s considered correct to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as “and” and to end one with a preposition such as “to” in most contexts today.
The best way to learn about what’s considered correct is to consult a usage guide. The two most popular in the US are The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook. Both are available only by purchase, though online versions exist. (Both use the word “style” differently from how I am.)
Chicago is used more frequently by book and magazine publishers, AP by newspapers and PR firms. Many of the rules and recommendations are the same, though AP tends toward the succinct. One good free site to read a short list of differences between the two, which also provides a snippet of each one’s more important content, is AP vs. Chicago. You can also sometimes find a rule or recommendation for a particular item by doing a Google search.
With online usage, aside from starting with one of the above sources, there are no widely used online usage guides. Much is common sense. There are widespread writing conventions used online, each of which should be weighed carefully.
One convention is the use of lowercase, or “downstyle.” It’s easier for some people when typing to avoid having to press the shift key to capitalize. Some take this so far as to never capitalize, even at the beginning of sentences.
With online communication, typing in all caps is considered the equivalent of shouting.
Another convention is to ignore, or at least pay little attention to, spelling and punctuation, running sentences together, ignoring spell checking suggestions if offered, and failing to proofread before sending or publishing.
But ease of writing shouldn’t lead to difficulty in reading. You’re burdening whomever you’re communicating with if you force them to figure out what it is you’re trying to say, and you probably won’t look good in the process.
Still, a lot of people let down their hair when writing online, it being more conversational than most business and academic writing. One rule of thumb is to follow the practices of the culture where you work or play.
A third online convention is using funny faces and colorful symbols when writing online.
Smileys, emoticons, and emojis are meant to communicate emotion. Smileys and emoticons are largely synonymous and describe online punctuation that consists of standard keyboard characters.
Emojis can be tiny pictures of actual faces, and many computer programs, tablets, and smartphones today offer them as one of their standard features. Many aren’t faces at all but hearts, flowers, fruit, or just about anything else you can think of. They can be a partial substitute for tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.
Some traditionalists avoid and even scorn emojis, acronyms, and such, regarding them as silly modern crutches. But the purposes they serve aren’t new.
Telegraph operators in the mid-19th century used acronyms such as IMHO (in my humble opinion) and FWIW (for what it’s worth) to save time when communicating among themselves, according to the book The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. Later, teletype operators used emoticons when chatting.
Question marks, exclamation points, and other standard punctuation also promote the correct understanding of meaning, and this is why they came into use.
For the same reason you should be careful about other online writing conventions, you shouldn’t overuse emojis and emoticons. Doing so can make your meaning more difficult to decipher, not less.
If you want to delve deeper into improving your writing, pay attention to the green squiggly lines underneath words in Microsoft Word and suggestions offered by grammar checkers in other programs. More complete grammar checking is available with Grammarly, a free program for Microsoft Office and Google Chrome that also comes in a premium version.
Some of the suggestions will be off. Because of English’s complexity, such programs put out many false positives. But they can sometimes uncover errors you would have missed.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or reidgold.com.