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.