Prescriptions on Style

Nick Carbone
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Recognizing that many users of e-mail may be on multiple lists, or may be on systems where access is metered, and also recognizing that time and bandwith are precious, netiquette usually calls for keeping messages short, although what short is depends upon the group.

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Some of the advice in Rinaldi's excerpt is better than others. For example, it is courteous (and wise) not to jump a chain of command simply because it is possible to do so. Further, it is wise to remember professionalism and the fact that e-mail is not private, that it can be easily forwarded, copied, or downloaded and saved. But these are things one should remember whether they are online or off. Going over someone's head to their boss may be easier to do, but managers are likely to regard such intrusions--at best--as a nuisance. What netiquette guides do best is remind users that there are indeed other people whom they are communicating with on the other end of the wire, and that like interacting with people in face to face or voice to voice communications, the same courtesies apply.

Now how well those courtesies apply in non-computer settings is another matter. Some of the more minor breaches of etiquette--not signing an e-mail message, replying to message by repeating the original and adding only a line such as, 'I agree,' or 'yes' certainly have their equivalences in the every day world in little things, like forgetting to put the seat back down on a toilet or taking the last cup of coffee without rinsing out the pot and starting a new one, which people categorize under pet peeves when they have to deal with them.

I would speculate that to a large degree certain lapses of netiquette are on the same scale as lapses in common courtesy almost everyone slips into at one time or another. That is their manifestations may be indicative of the internet and its modes of communication, but their occurrence is a manifestation more of the very human tendency to forget the niceties of social intercourse now and again.

But the advice to keep messages short and to the point I find more problematic; here the advice gets away from simply reminding people of points they should already know and ventures into areas which have to do with how language is used, how writing is handled, how thoughts are shaped. To that end, the advice takes a limiting view.

The rationale behind it is understandable. A lot of e-mail takes place in a business setting, as a form of inter-office communication where brevity is a value. In In Search of Excellence, for example, Peters and Drucker extol the management technique of one company which insisted that all memos be kept to one page to ensure that writers focus their ideas and to reduce the time it takes readers to process the information. That seems to be the cultural ethic most e-mail netiquette guides bring to bear when discussing writing on the internet.

In some lists and on some usenet groups the members may indeed insist, either in practice or by haranguing people who write long posts, on this kind of protocol. There are others, of course, where long posts are more common, so it is, like all netiquette advice ignored in or inappropriate for some circumstances.

To be sure, nearly every netiquette guide recommends first and foremost learning the ways of the particular community one is joining. In the netiquette guide Patrick Crispin uses in his Roadmap sequence, a guide written by his father, the Rev. Robert Crispin, this truth is given special prominence in an epigram which precedes the advice:

"When thou enter a city
abide by its customs."
-- The Talmud

But this advice really functions in netiquette guides as a kind of catch all, as a sort of, there-are-exceptions-to-these-rules,-but-these-still-are-the-rules valve. So while they recognize the rule for brevity and coming to the point is not always what is called for or what is preferred in some internet communities, the prevailing recommendation is that being brief and to the point is what is best. One of the most heralded benefits of CMC is that it is conducted in writing so that those who use it will be doing more writing. Yet at the same time this has happened, critics have expressed dismay that so much of the writing is not, well, not good as defined by either Standard American Edited English or depth of insight, and some of it is categorized as downright awful.

And this is true enough, that not all writing on the internet is good, that much of it is in fact poor. But in the rush to deal with this lack of polish, netiquette guides tend to place too much emphasis on the brevity and clarity mantra.

Again let me emphasize these can be virtues in writing, but the point is they are not the only virtue. Generally speaking brevity and clarity come from business and journalistic cultures and from writing teachers who stress it. As I write this I can think of all the handbooks which address this issue in realms which do not necessarily portend writing for business or news reports, the advice floating in me like triangles in a Magic 8 Ball, rising to the surface of my writing consciousness almost at random: Vigorous writing is concise. Use concrete language. Yet as a writing teacher I spend much of my time unpacking this advice, which so many of my students have internalized because these internalizations have stymied there growth as writers. They read and make judgments about writing with the same kind of automatic response I see in grammar checkers on computers.

A grammar checker can not read. It compares words, counts words, and associates classes of words (noun, verb, preposition) with their position in the sentence and their relationship to the location in the sentence of pertinent punctuation. In short they can compare what they see to what the programmer has told them they should be seeing. Students operate the same way some times. They'll worry about a sentence being too long, for example. But the concern is not based on having read the sentence to see if it makes sense or is grammatical correct, the concern is based entirely on length. In fact I had one student tell me he was taught that if a sentence was over 30 words, it was too long. I almost fell out of my chair.

What we did was select the grammar checker from the word processor (Grammatik 5.0 in Microsoft Word 6.0) and I showed him the option where a user can define long and short sentences by arbitrarily typing in a number. You are reading your writing like a machine, I said, by which I mean to say, you're not really reading it.

This slavish devotion to a writing option as a writing maxim leads to errors that otherwise might have been avoided. For example students who fear long sentences are likely to have more sentence fragments because they're not reading the thought as much as they are reacting to the length of the sentence or what they think the length of the sentence to be.

We have learned as well that teaching writing from workbooks--an approach which assumes that there are basics to be taught which can be isolated and studied apart from real writing needs then somehow miraculously be put back together when writing is called for--is essentially wrong.

We know from our own experience of working with writers who follow advice too closely the dangers of advocating only one particular trait.

As writing teachers we know this is a burden for people because nearly everyone of us has heard someone apologize to us when speaking or writing to us about their grammar, punctuation, or spelling. I get letters from friends who are working on novels telling me not to read their letters with a red pen. I think there is this collective guilt about writing in American culture and a collective perception shared by many people that they can't write well which in part drives the call to brevity and clarity. The gist behind the advice against this background is keep it short and sweet, say it and move on, and there's less room for error.

Of course other factors go into the prevalence of this advice as well. We can't forget that part of the advice stems from a concern for the reader's condition: the effects on reading online on eye strain, the fact that writing, storing, and reading e-mail involves resources and costs, the amount of e-mail many receive, the frustration of trying to make sense of something that is poorly written, and the bad feelings which can lead to flaming when messages are misunderstood because of poor grammar, spelling and punctuation.

So advice such as this, from Robert Slade, is understandable:

17. Keep your cool. Read it again. sPeling kountz. Too does syntax grammar and. A number of Internet posters feel that, since the medium is ephemeral, messages do not need to be composed with care. This shows a lack of respect for those who will spend time trying to read and understand the message. Remember the Usenet warning: "This message will cost the net hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to post to all machines. Are you sure you want to do this?" If it is not worth the time to correct your spelling and grammatical errors, it isn't worth posting. Read the postings of others forgivingly, but your own harshly.

It is good advice, but if it were always followed by every one, the Internet, while it might be more efficient, would become less inviting. It is precisely the kind of message which this advice seeks to avoid that makes the Internet so interesting. The advice does not seem to trust list dynamics; instead it presupposes an ideal dynamic, one where everyone agrees on what is a message that is too long, one where everyone agrees on what a message is worth.

If e-mail is a sign of a new epistolary age, then for it to really have the qualities associated with epistles, with what we hold dear when we evoke the term, advice about e-mail and cmc needs to take into better account the rhetorical context of the messages--the ebb and flow of comments that make up the conversation at hand.

Vigorous writing may indeed be concise, but compelling writing is not necessarily conditioned upon brevity, correct grammar, punctuation and spelling. As important as those qualities are, e-mail carries with it as much a sense of the written as it does the spoken. The immediacy and speed of e-mail and cmc reading and response make it feel like talk. Talking, for most us, involves more words than a final written product; that is talk is often a kind of improvisation. We might, when talking with someone, respond to a comment or question and as we speak follow where the thought leads, straying from the original comment and opening up new ground. In writing this happens in brainstorming, freewriting, and drafting. Careful revision and fine tuning go into taming the prose and corralling it back in.

Yet e-mail, for most folk, is not a place where habits of composing make revision and fine tuning easy. Many e-mail programs lack a spell checker; many don't allow for easy backspacing to make corrections. Writers who for the most part write with few grammar and punctuation errors are more likely to be writers who have better control over those skills and can get things correct in one shot.

E-mail provides a private space for public utterances. While writing a message, the e-mail correspondent is alone with their screen, writing in isolation, perhaps in silence, a silence that would be uncomfortable in a room if people were waiting to hear from her. It is this sense of privacy, of intimacy one has with their own thoughts, which makes an insistence on Standard Edited English so problematic. We don't edit our private thoughts, we don't check them for grammar. We don't expect others to do so either.

This increases the risk involved in writing and sending e-mail; errors in English writing that can unintentionally change or obfuscate what was meant are part of the risk.

Netiquette guides, when they address matters of style and correctness, work to reduce this risk. But they do so at great cost. In general to reduce trying someone's patience, they advocate brevity, to reduce misunderstanding, they advocate correct grammar, to reduce confusion about intent, they advocate announcing when writing is meant to be ironic, sarcastic, humorous--either by stating as much directly or including strategically placed smileys.

Short messages don't allow for a longer, more complex and richly textured thought; for writers who have not ingrained in themselves the grammar and syntax of Standard Edited English, as well as the rules for using punctuation and spelling to display grammar and syntax correctly, the emphasis on adherence could just as easily displace what it is the person seeks to say and lead to a message which is more vacuous than it might have been had the writer simply let loose.

Too, the lack of Standard Edited English in so much of what gets sent about on the Internet suggests that for many who are writing in it, it is not important. True it becomes important when errors lead to miscues, but miscues can be addressed.

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