Words can ever hurt me

Words have recently caused many casualties.

Whether they were in emails exchanged with the Murdochs and read to the Leveson Inquiry, or the horrifyingly hateful tweets of student Liam Stacey following the near-death of footballer Fabrice Muamba, we should have learned that what we write we may live to regret.

But it is only in the last decade, with the social textual media led by Facebook and Twitter, that so many have used so much written language. For all the many millenia that humans have been using languages to communicate with one another, those communications (like those languages) have been primarily spoken.

What you say to your mates in the pub, club, or other physical gathering is ephemeral and quite distinct from the language that used to be put into writing. Because our spoken words are highly contextual, often tuned and clarified by follow-up questions, speech is very different from written materials.

Browse the transcripts of natural speech used in some of the major linguistic corpora, for instance, and you will quickly see this. Even academic discussion read out of context can be mystifyingly opaque, its syntax fractured.

Although those documenting the grammar of languages like English have at last recognised the importance of the spoken form, detailed studies of speech have been relatively limited. One of the more illuminating is Jonathan Ginzburg’s “The Interactive Stance” (ISBN 978-0-19-969792-2), which includes analysis of ‘clarification requests’, that occur on average every 20 turns in conversation.

Fluent and meaningful text communication does take place, but seems increasingly rare. Emoticons look fun and may help some, but are a small sticking plaster applied to a gaping wound, as the forensic readings of the Murdochs’ email showed. When your skills of self-expression in written language compare with those of Dickens, you have no need for such plasters, as you can colour your words with the intended emotion.

I cannot recall any master of English writing who ever had to resort to an emoticon, parenthetical explanation, or informative footnote to press their meaning home.

Most of us are confined to reading rather than emulating Dickens, and many lost the struggle to express themselves clearly in writing when still at school. Teenage years spent assembling texts and hearing soap-speak are hardly conducive to textual competence.

However if you study the exchanges that take place on some sites – Apple’s discussion forums, for instance – you can see clarification requests and other techniques borrowed from conversation. I have yet to see a good linguistic study of these phenomena, but those who communicate better over the Internet appear to be deploying techniques used in other media.

With schools finding it decreasingly useful to try teaching outmoded tools such as when to use ’yours faithfully’ to end a letter, the time has surely come for the National Curriculum to change the focus of English as a subject, and improve written communication in the social media, email, and their ilk.

This might even bring home the message that what you write may come back to haunt you, perhaps. For without such skills, our children will have lives darkened by perpetual misunderstanding and its consequences.

Yet bizarrely the use of social media, and concerns over its abuse, are hived off in the Computing section of the Curriculum, whilst English (as the subject of communication) still steams off in the anachronisms of Shakespeare, schwas, and essay-writing. Important though the latter are, effective and safe communication in English is surely an everyday essential, not something tacked on to learning how to write simple computer programs.

None of this excuses the behaviour of those caught out by the content of their own text communications. By any standards Liam Stacey plumbed the depths of human emotion, and Lord Justice Leveson reached his own eloquently-expressed conclusions about the Murdochs.

However any improvement in online communication can only relieve frustration, and enhance what we do and understand. It might keep some out of jail too.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 28 issue 13, 2012.