This Viral Tweet About Millennial Language Demonstrates All Syntax & Tonal Shifts Millennials Have Developed For The Written Word
Millennials (and often Gen Xers and Gen Zers, too) are often derided by older generations for the way they communicate online and in text messages. The argument is that it’s not grammatically correct; therefore, it’s bad, wrong, and even an indication of the rapid decline of society and civilization as we know it. But as a viral tweet about how millennials use language demonstrates, that’s actually not the case at all. In fact, I’d argue that millennials’ use of language online is an indication that society and civilization are evolving — and that’s a very good thing, indeed.
The tweet comes from copyeditor Deanna Hoak, who posted a screenshot of a short thread from Tumblr on March 3. “It’s kinda cool how our generation has created actual tone in the way we write online,” the Tumblr thread begins. “Like whether we: write properly with perfect grammar, shrthnd everythin, use capitals to emphasise [sic] The Point, use extra letters or characters for emotion!!!!!, and much more — it means we can have casual conversations, effectively make jokes using things like sarcasm that’s usually hard to understand without context and much more.” Ultimately, concludes the user, “this ‘incorrect English’ has really opened avenues of online conversation that isn’t accessible with ‘correct English.’”
A second Tumblr user jumped in by— what else? — adding three hashtags: “#this is why attempts by the media to portray online communication by ‘millenials’ [sic] really frustrate me” is the first; “#because there are Rules okay” is the second; and “#like see that’s different to saying ‘there are rules’” is the third. Then, finally, a third user noted something their English teacher had said about this kind of language: “What my teacher was really floored about was that… we’re ‘native speakers’ of a whole new type of English.”
Said Hoak about the conversation in the screenshot, “My master’s was in sociolinguistics, and I absolutely see this as true.”
The sequence of Tumblr posts highlighted by Hoak aren’t new;they first arrived online in the spring of 2016. Two of the three original posts — the very first one from Rale and the final one from Diabolical-Mastermind — have since been deleted; however, the middle one from MaskedLinguist, which adds tags written and pegged to Rale’s post by SoaringSparrow to the main conversation, remains — and, y’know, since the internet is forever, the full sequence of posts is still frequently reblogged today.
And I think the fact that is still being passed around is a testament to how valuable the point it makes is. As a generation who conducts a huge amount of our communication in solely text-based formats, we’ve developed all of these style cues and new rules to make up for the lack of body language and tone — that is, this “incorrect”grammar isn’t something that developed out of laziness; it’s something that developed out of necessity. As Hoak put it in a later tweet, it’s “specifically aimed at conveying nuance in short and immediate written form.” Another user asked, “Would you consider it a digital dialect?”, which seems to be pretty close to the mark. “I like this term a lot,” Hoak wrote in response.
And, indeed, many other Twitter users chimed in to identify some of these new rules of online grammar — all of which are truly, truly fascinating. Here’s a look at a few:
1. Atypical Capitalization
I like to think of this one as a fun riff on “correct”grammar. “Correct” grammar teaches us that capitalization is reserved for proper nouns — that is, for the specific names of people, places, and things: Michelle Obama. The United States. Pringles. The idea is that capitalization lends these things a sort of import that they don’t necessarily have when they’re left in all-lowercase letters (michelle obama, the united states, pringles). By capitalizing something that isn’t typically capitalized, however, we’re basically making it into a proper noun, thereby lending it that same import that capitalized names usually have: The Point. The Rules. A Thing. It’s fascinating, no?
2. “lol” vs. “LOL”
Here's another case of capitalization mattering, albeit in a slightly different manner. In this instance, it almost indicates volume — like, if you were actually laughing out loud (which, remember, is what “lol” originally stood for), then a “LOL” kind of laugh would be loud, raucous laughter or a kind of belly laugh, while a “lol” kind of laugh would be more like a chuckle. But since text-based communication doesn’t generally include audible volume as a characteristic, we can indicate volume through other means.
3. The Double Dot
I actually didn’t know this, possibly because I'm a little too old to be considered digitally native. I’ve been seeing the double dot around the internet for the past few years, but no one I know in my own peer group (early 30s) uses it; my assumption has always been that it’s an invention of younger millennials or Gen Z. I’ve never known quite what to make of it — but I do now! You learn a new thing every day, right?
4. The Comma Ellipsis
This was another new one for me. I’ve always used an ellipsis combined with a question mark to mean sort of the same thing — that is, I tend to write “Are you sure…?” instead of “Are you sure,,,” — but thisnext tweet explains why comma ellipses matter:
We needed something that differentiated an “angry” ellipsis from an “unsure” one — again, because text doesn’t have the body language or aural tone we would typically take our cues from if we encountered something like this in person.
5. Dropped Commas
The tweet highlighted by @Um_Hello here was originally posted by @JimmerThatisAll in 2013:
@Jimmer’s generation identity is unclear, but the point is a good one: While a sentence with dropped commas would be considered a run-on sentence in “correct” grammar, in online grammar, it’s an indication of the writer’s excitement or energy. What’s more, in readers, it often inspires that same feeling — the literal breathlessness that can only be brought on by something really, really exciting.
6. “O,” “Oh,” “Ohhh,” and “Oooo”
I don’t tend to use “O” or “Oh” a ton, but to me, “Ohhhh” usually means the person writing it has had some sort of revelation or realization (“Ohhhhh, I see”, while “Oooo” indicates excitement or emphatic interest (“Oooo, yes, please!”).
7. Full Stops (Or The Lack Thereof)
Worth noting: One study from 2015 found that people assume if you end a text with a period, it means you’re angry.
But there are layers to this one. Consider the following point, as well:
8. The Importance of the Sender
A tale of two tweets: First, read the one above. Then, read this one below:
Context matters immensely.Someone in the baby boomer generation ending texts with periods is construed very differently from someone in the Gen X, millennial, or Gen Z groups ending texts with periods. If a millennial receives a text from a baby boomer parent that ends with a period, we usually know that that’s just the way said parent types; however, if a millennial receives a text from a fellow millennial that ends with a period, we read it as an indication of anger — largely, I think, because dropped periods have become the norm in texts, so when they’re present, we read into what making the extra effort to include them might mean. I’d be curious to know how millennials read texts without periods from boomers, or how boomers read texts without periods from other boomers — what are the assumptions made in those situations?
Of course, there is a time and a place for this kind of digital dialect It wouldn’t be appropriate in situations that require more formality — say, in an academic paper or while you’re having tea with the Queen — but it’s applicable in many more situations than you might think. And, I mean, just think about how often language has been adapted to suit new needs over... well, pretty much the course of human history: Shakespeare invented words all the time that are now fixtures in English. Gertrude Stein played with form frequently, ranging from stream-of-consciousness-style works to language that is often read as a feminist subversion of patriarchal language tropes. Playwright Caryl Churchill’s slash marks indicating overlapping dialogue have become a common convention in theatrical writing. Black English is now considered a lingua franca. And on and on and on.
There is not One True Grammar. Language evolves as needed. And that should be celebrated, not mourned.