"You Send Me" by Patricia T. O'Conner & Stewart Kellerman

Two former New York Times editors explain how to express yourself correctly when writing online -- but why should we listen to them?

By Jonathon Keats
Published August 26, 2002 9:43PM (EDT)

If ever there was an exam tailored to measure future professional success, it's the Graduate Management Admission Test. Graded by a software program called E-rater, GMAT essays are given high marks, regardless of content, not only for lengthiness and sentence complexity, but also for unintelligible wording and extensive application of such terms as "since" and "therefore," commonly associated with solid reasoning. To bluff that computer, in other words, you need not be a scholar, but simply must master the tools used to defraud investors.

It's a formula. As former New York Times editors Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman note, there's no need with E-rater "to sweat over creativity, individuality and style -- the things a real reader looks for in writing." Alas, the advice they dispense in "You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online" can only result in prose equally dull and mechanical.

Perhaps that's inevitable, given the authors' oft-stated premise. Like many people who grew up in another era, O'Conner and Kellerman see e-mail simply as the latest trend in letter-writing, a technological advance which, like the invention of the fountain pen, has made life a little easier and people a little lazier than they were in the age of the quill. They write that "e-mail has single-handedly revived the epistolary tradition," yet that "much of what passes for writing in cyberspace is dreadful. The spelling in e-mail is rotten, the grammar is atrocious, the punctuation -- don't ask."

But rather than examining why online writing is so undisciplined and attempting to appreciate the virtue of such impertinence, O'Conner and Kellerman are determined to impose on electronic communication all the limitations of the forms to which they're already accustomed. "Right now online writing is pretty much in its Wild West stage," they write, "with everybody shooting from the hip and no sheriff in sight. The outlaws claim that rules are so 'analog,' so 'print,' so 'old media.' But law and order will gradually replace frontier justice, and now is our chance to have a say in what the laws will be."

What rules would they instate? Some of their ideas are simply quaint remnants of an earlier time, as harmless as our vestigial tails: include "a friendly greeting, a polite closing, and a name at the end." Extraneous as all that may be, what with the "To" and "From" fields that head every e-mail, it's the sort of gesture that inevitably will go the way of the dinosaur.

Occasionally, O'Conner and Kellerman even give a good suggestion. One anecdote they relate, of a professor who deleted any e-mail that came to him from a Hotmail address -- he believed it to be from a porn site -- indicates the degree to which a screen name makes an impression. But such attention to online communication as a medium in its own right is, in this book, inexplicably uncommon.

The majority of the advice in "You Send Me" is either so banal that it insults the intelligence of the reader or so inappropriate that it calls into question the competence of the writers. Into the former category we can place the suggestion to "Say it once. You might come up with three terrific ways to say something, but an e-mail or other online message isn't the place for all three." These words of wisdom, lest they be forgotten, are rephrased 39 pages later: "Did you get right to the point?" -- which is almost verbatim a reprise of the advice 44 pages earlier to "Get to the point."

One might think this an attempt at subtle satire, were the authors not so ham-handed with their humor elsewhere. Almost invariably, the chapter subheads are puns ("Mail Bonding," "Clone Rangers," "Call Me Modem"), offering a superficial levity sometimes extended into the text ("Simply follow these steps and develop the comma touch"). While hardly witty, such trite wordplay would simply be forgettable were there something useful being said. Instead, when the authors take the space to be substantive, they merely offer a round-about repackaging of Strunk & White.

It should be said that William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's "Elements of Style" could easily be extended to many times its current 105 pages. Ideally, an annotated edition would explain why we have the rules of grammar that we do and how the exceptions originally came into being. A history of English grammar would help us to use rules with greater precision, or more originality, as happens when we know the etymology of our words. O'Conner and Kellerman don't give grammar that chance. While their advice is sometimes easier to apply than that found on a high school composition class mimeograph, they allow the deeper reasons for most rules to remain as opaque as ever. "If a sentence ends with an aside in parentheses, the period goes outside. ... But if the entire sentence is in parentheses, the period goes inside." Why? They don't say, although it would be easy enough to explain that a period indicates the end of a sentence as a whole; when a clause enclosed in parentheses is only part of a larger sentence, the period goes outside. But if the parenthetical is a full sentence, unless you want your period to serve as a clause in its own right, it goes inside.

Mindlessly memorizing rules, you find yourself at the service of language rather than the other way around. If that happens to enough people, language is immobilized, effectively dead. The Internet, so long as it remains in what O'Conner and Kellerman call its "Wild West stage," offers an opportunity for the unwashed masses to rethink the accepted rules of grammar, to reclaim them and to reinvent them to suit new meanings.

"We think the computer may be the best thing that's happened to writing since the printing press," the authors of "You Send Me" claim, presumably referring to its ability to facilitate mass communication. What they ignore, though, in their lists of words with 'e' before 'i' that "you'll just have to memorize" is the remarkable plurality of approaches to spelling and grammatical strategies to be found in incunabula, from the Bible to Shakespeare. (Consider the effect of the technical misuse of "whom" for "who" in the King James Bible: "But whom say ye that I am?" Christ asks Peter in Matthew 16:15, adding a glint of majesty to his question, an implied answer, that would be lacking in, e.g., "But who say ye that I am?") In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a looseness to language that gradually was driven out by schoolteachers and proofreaders until modernism had to break each rule intentionally, a sort of reverse-engineered ignorance, deliberately building an alternate history of literature on self-conscious idiosyncrasies.

It was an exercise that, at its most profound, brought us Gertrude Stein's "3 Lives," and, at its most silly, an entire novel written exclusively with words lacking the letter 'e'. Language opened up in certain circles courtesy of the experimental novel, but that expansion was always artificial.

Through the Internet, language can be revivified in a way that is universal and natural. O'Conner and Kellerman want us to "resist the temptation to show off typographically with bizarre lettering or graphics or spelling or punctuation," when those are precisely the things with which we ought to be experimenting. Addressing the perils of punctuation, they write that, "It hasn't helped that those cutesy emoticons people use online are tiny pictures made of punctuation marks. After a while, folks start thinking of hyphens as noses, parentheses as smiles or frowns, colons as eyes (and semicolons as winks)."

Point well taken, but is this honestly a bad thing? The authors claim earlier that, "Asking an e-mail to carry your message is sometimes asking a lot ... In a face-to-face meeting, body language, tone of voice, and facial expression help people to communicate." Certainly ;-) doesn't match the nod-and-a-wink of a professional comedian, nor does 0:-) evoke angelic innocence as well as a Raphael painting does, but such symbols do suggest that, if people need to gesture in a textual environment, they can innovate.

We can do this by ignoring old rules and inventing at our keyboard without the worry that we're committing a cardinal sin. Emoticons are as insipid as air kisses and should be avoided by anybody whose name isn't Tammi or Brandi. But we can only address our need to punctuate what we write online with an indication of how we feel about it -- to create a language of emotional subtext -- if we recognize that need in the first place. And we will recognize it only if we learn from what we see online rather than trying to teach the Internet to behave like an older technology.

Already we've seen the PC held back by the desktop metaphor -- the persistence of folders and trash bins -- that has made us wary of any organizational scheme designed to take advantage of the differences between a digital and an analog world. Having rejected DOS, we're paranoid about anything that isn't "user-friendly," that requires some adjustment on our part and a commitment to meet the technology halfway. It's as if Henry Ford rigged a bridle and set of leather reins to his Model T instead of a steering wheel and clutch, and to this day we were still driving our cars the way a 19th century groomsman would handle a horse and buggy. The automobile works better because we allowed the technology to take on a form of its own and adjusted our habits to make the most of it. Except perhaps among early enthusiasts of the Altair, that never happened with computers.

This paranoia about innovation now extends into online communication. "Software is out there that can track your every move," O'Conner and Kellerman write, "from the Web sites you visit to the books you buy to the songs you download to the e-mail you answer. Yes, there are programs that can foil casual snoopers. ... But it's safer to operate on the assumption that virtually anyone can find out virtually anything you do in the virtual world."

In other words, because the technology allows the possibility that you'll be monitored, you should respond by never saying anything substantive -- let alone, God forbid, something ungrammatical. And as for expressing yourself with even a whiff of whimsy: "Assume that someone with absolutely no sense of humor is hunched over a desktop computer in an office down the hall."

Assume that no one will understand you, everyone will forward what you write to those you want least to read it and that the whole Internet is a virtual fishbowl. Don't put a semicolon inside your quotation marks, don't write "a lot" as a single word and never ever send another e-mail that's not about correct grammar, and you may live your life unnoticed by all. If that's your idea of a worthy existence, then this is your book.

Already, generations have suffered under the strictures of "good grammar." We've been running scared for too long. It can be seen in the way that people use "I" instead of "me" at every possible opportunity: The constant correction of "Pat and Stewart and me went to the library" has resulted in a fear of ever being caught saying "me" -- a source of trauma for Pat and Stewart and I -- or, rather, for Pat and Stewart and me.

More proper than we are, our grammar has caused us to second-guess everything we say. The Internet is the Wild West. Let's not treat it like Westminster Abbey.

Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

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