Grammar and Punctuation for the Web: What\’s Proper?

Most of us were educated to believe that there is one “correct” (and fairly formal) version of English grammar and punctuation, and any deviation from that is mere sloppiness.

Not true! The whole point of grammar and punctuation is to enhance understanding – not to enforce rigid conformity.

The way we understand information depends, in large measure, upon how we get that information. Therefore, the rules of grammar and punctuation must bend and evolve to accommodate various forms of communication – including the web…

What’s unique about online content?

These considerations can help guide grammar and punctuation choices in your online writing:

  • It’s not print. Most formal rules of English grammar and punctuation were developed to suit written (printed) communication, and they still work very well in that environment. However, print is only one medium – and in coming decades it may cease to be the most common communication channel in many geographic regions or sectors of society.
  • It’s a challenging visual environment. Text and images (both visual vehicles) are the primary ways to transmit messages via computer. Unfortunately, today’s computer screens remain a more difficult physical environment for reading, thanks to lower resolution, flicker, lighting, etc.
  • Small punctuation gets lost. Look at your keyboard – the most commonly used English punctuation marks are small. In print, punctuation marks serve to enhance the perceived flow of words. However, on a computer screen commas, periods, semicolons, colons, apostrophes, and many other common punctuation marks are simply hard to see. Therefore, less punctuation and bigger punctuation marks are usually more effective in online content. This is why the em-dash (a long hyphen: –) tends to be used more liberally online than in print. Similarly, semicolons (;) tend to be used sparingly in web content – they’re too visually innocuous to play the key structural role that they often do in print.
  • White space helps. On a web page, more white space makes it easier to discern individual visual elements such as words and punctuation. This is an editorial issue as well as a design issue. Short paragraphs provide more white space, and also clearly differentiate points of discussion.
  • Simple sentences help. Short, simple sentences are faster to read and typically require less punctuation.
  • Offer more context. Since the web offers far less orientation to readers, your web content should provide more context in more ways. For instance, it’s usually better to identify the antecedents of pronouns more directly and frequently in web writing than in print writing.
  • Interactive = More conversational and auditory.The web is an interactive medium that is closely intertwined with e-mail and discussion forums. The overall psychological effect is that people seem to experience online media rather (but not exactly) like a conversation. Online audiences tend to mentally “listen” as well as read. Consequently, a fairly conversational tone and pacing work well in most web writing. This means that you often can write for the web in a way that resembles spoken English. The best online writing combines the rhythms and emphasis of spoken English with the organized flow of tight writing.
  • Leverage the sense of action. Web users actively navigate through the online environment, which puts them in a more engaged and action-oriented state of mind. Capitalize on this by using action-oriented language in your web writing, including active verbs and appropriate imperative statements (such as “Learn more”).
  • Make it “drillable.” Internet users typically expect to be able to “drill down” into online content to access more details, background, or analysis – including old content. In fact, your web content might even “live” longer than you will! Where possible, choose verb tenses that will not be quickly outdated. When providing deeper detail or lengthy discourses that people probably would want to print out, stick to more standard English grammar and punctuation to support that use. When moving (or linking) from one level of detail to another, watch verb tenses, pronoun usage, and other grammatical details to avoid a jarring transition.
  • Don’t Capitalize Words Just Because Everyone Else Does. Online media has been overrun by unnecessary capitalization. Think very carefully about which kinds of words you wish to capitalize, and why. Aside from capitalizing the first word in a sentence and unambiguously proper nouns, you really are free to make this style decision for yourself. For instance, does your online venue really need to capitalize a person’s title such as “lead architect” or “managing editor?” That’s up to you. In the case of this weblog, last month I made an editorial decision to stop capitalizing web and internet. Some people objected vehemently to this decision. I don’t care. That point is a grammatical gray area, and I’m on the side of simplicity. Unnecessary capitals create unnecessary complexity. End of story as far as I’m concerned – but others are free to make different decisions for their own writing, and I respect that.

14 thoughts on Grammar and Punctuation for the Web: What\’s Proper?

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  1. Writing for the Web
    “Most of us were educated to believe that there is one “correct” (and fairly formal) version of English grammar and punctuation, and any deviation from that is mere sloppiness.

    Not true! The whole point of grammar and punctuation is to enhance un…

  2. Please give an example of some grammatical rules that apply to normal written communication but not to the internet. I’ve never heard of a grammtical rule that applies to only one form of communication.

  3. Thanks for the info. I agree that simplicity is best. But I do have issue with your views on capitalization, especially when it comes to web page headers, navigation items, and other labels. We have a policy of “sentence case” at Deloitte (i.e., only cap the first word and proper nouns), but it’s not always easy to distinguish what’s a proper noun and what isn’t. In a large organization such as this, I find that folks tend to cap most terms as a way of indicating importance. So what happens is you have some content managers using sentence case, and others not, which creates inconsistency. I personally prefer initial capping all terms in page headers, nav items, etc., except for prepositions, conjunctions, and articles because it’s just easier for people to know what to do. And I’m all for consistency! Just my opinion …

  4. Sure, English is evolving… But the whole point of grammar rules is that they’re rules. That is, they’re a set of common conventions that help readers understand what the writer intended. Examples of miscommunicaton caused by incorrect punctuation abound.

  5. I realize that the concept of bending print-based grammatical/punctuation rules to enhance online communication is a controversial one. Well, this blog isn’t called CONTENTIOUS for nothing, I suppose! 🙂

    Seriously, though — the whole point of language (including grammar and punctuation) is communication. All I’m saying here is that due to the limitations and unique aspects of online media, some rules that work well in a print environment do not necessarily enhance communication in an online environment.

    I am not saying that standard grammar and punctuation rules don’t matter. I’m saying that they should be applied thoughtfully, in ways that are most appropriate for the method of communication (medium) being used. This is a point that should be considered by any individual or organization trying to make decisions about online content style. That’s all.

    – Amy Gahran

  6. Your comment at 5:20 clears up your intention somewhat, but the whole premise of “bending the rules” leads down a very slippery slope. Use of proper gramatical rules needs more, and not less emphasis in an educational setting especially.

  7. Grammar and Punctuation for the Web: What’s Proper?
    Most of us were educated to believe that there is one “correct” (and fairly formal) version of English grammar and punctuation, and any deviation from that is mere sloppiness. Contentious » Grammar and Punctuation for the Web: What’s Proper?…

  8. Go for it Amy – rules are there to be broken!
    I’m an elearning writer, so your thoughts resonate with my own experience and instincts.
    Cheers 🙂

  9. I was worried when I first started reading your article because I hold rigidly to grammar and punctuation rules. However, I discovered that you aren’t really saying that a whole lot of things need to be changed. I think you have advocated some minor things, and that generally, as is evident in your writing, you hold true to most of the rules that most of us hold dear. I too think we need to have some rules written up for online writing, but changes from the norm should be presented with good evidence or reasons for the change.

    I disagree with your decision to not capitalize words like “Internet” or “the Web.” I think that is the same as misspelling words, something that might also eventually happen if we, as someone has already said, continue the “slide down a slippery slope.”

    Once again, I must disagree with your opening paragraph and statement of “Not True!” You make it sound as if you are going to throw out all of the rules, when in fact, you have only suggested some minor changes. People who only give your reading a quick glance will not discover this, and will, in fact, assume that you are advocating a much more lienient approach to grammar. That will only give those who pay little attention to spelling and grammar rules an excuse to continue what they are doing instead of making an effort to do it right.

  10. Tim Burners-Lee, the “father” of the WWW states that Web and Web site are most definitely written with an uppercase W. See his comments on FAQ on Spelling Web

    World Wide Web is a “place” in cyberspace, and we use uppercase even for virtual locations.

    And, yes, the Internet with an uppercase I. Why? Again, it is a “geographical location” in cyberspace.

    It isn’t arbitrary or according to whimsy. Plus, Microsoft’s, Apple’s, and Sun Microsystem’s style guides support the above.

    Yes, I am passionate about the above!

  11. The discussion about use of capitalization has a historical ring. In particular, I refer to the internet and the web. My parents remember that when the telephone was being introduced it had capitals. They also said the same happened with the following words: car, automobile, aeroplane, atomic bomb, television (still TV) phonogram, wireless, radio, vacuum cleaner, mixmaster, power-point (this also had discussion on powerpoint or power-point), electricity.
    I think when a new medium or communication standard first breaks with the general public, it is given a capital because of its uniqueness. Once the system becomes common and looses that, it reverts back to lowercase. Therefore, those that have been using computers and the net for a long time (1974 in my case) do not see it as new, or a place, but as a tool like a refrigerator, or mobile phone, or a car. So we could generalize (note generalize) and say that those who still use capitalized internet and web are late adopters of the technology or, use it less than the lowercase user. I say generalize because there will be some that have been using the medium for just as long as I – if not longer (about 1964 for the 1st email) and still capitalize.
    The point is that the rules are a reflection of common usage, and they change with what is common. The argument of a “geographical location” is not enough. My study is too, so is my office, and although this statement can be considered fallacious, what is the defining characteristic that means web is upper case and study is not?

  12. Websites reach out to an international audience – and include many non-native English speakers. For this reason alone, all these rules make good sense. Choice of words is also important – plain English makes it easier to reach more readers.