How do the linguistic conventions of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging differ from more traditional modes of communication like letters, face-to-face conversation, and formal prose?

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Linguistic conventions are accepted norms of communication held by a community. These conventions involve the use, the timing, and the meaning of different terms. Communicating electronically by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging often employs the same linguistic conventions as traditional communication, but some differences between the two categories of...

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Linguistic conventions are accepted norms of communication held by a community. These conventions involve the use, the timing, and the meaning of different terms. Communicating electronically by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging often employs the same linguistic conventions as traditional communication, but some differences between the two categories of communication do exist.

In handwritten letters and in vivo conversations, for example, greetings from one party serve as an invitation to communicate to the receiving party. Many users of e-mail and texts also use greetings, but they are not expected in the same way that they are expected with letters and conversation. Some contexts of e-mail use, like in professional contexts, do require a level of formality, but expectations loosen the more often two parties engage in e-mailing. The looseness of this interaction also sets e-mailing apart from letter writing and conversation; texts are even less formal than e-mailing, and few users of text messaging services will expect the formality of a greeting at the start of communication with another person.

Facebook is an interesting platform for communication because both formal and informal linguistic conventions are acceptable depending on the relationship between the two communicators and the context of the exchange. Greetings, for example, can be used when posting a message, but few will even notice if a greeting is not employed.

Twitter, with its limited space requirements, appears to have its own set of expectations around linguistic conventions. Because space is scarce, greetings are definitely not expected. Emojis can be very useful in this context, as well as in the others like e-mail, text, and Facebook, as the pictorial depictions can save space and time.

While some differences in style do exist between the linguistic conventions of electronic and traditional communication, they differ mainly in terms of expectations. Formality, informality, flexibility, and rigidity are key words to use in terms of a communicator's experience. After all, drawings have long decorated letters, much like emojis liven up a text message, and greetings are so essential to human interaction that they need not be verbal to be effective.

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The new methods of communication do not differ significantly in content or in “speech-acts.” We are still basically saying “hello,” “keeping in touch,” “passing information,” etc. The primary overriding difference is succinctness, abbreviating language on the assumption that the receiver can “fill in” what is abbreviated. The basic communication model – sender, code, medium, static, receiver, etc. – is still intact, but now the “exchanges” – the pairings of utterance A, response to A, etc. – are quicker and more conversational than letters, quieter than oral conversation, less “wordy” -- that is, “modified” with adjectives and adverbs, etc. – and interestingly, more private than 20th century conversation (cf. phone conversation to Twitter).

Another interesting social change is the extensive range of people who can join in on the conversation – thousands of Tweeters, for example. Finally, our modern social structure is being altered by the presence of electronic communication – in myriad ways – bringing us together abstractly while separating us physically. I see a parallel in the Interstate System, sold to us as a way of connecting us to each other, but in fact acting as an excuse for the nuclear family to spread out across the country. From a linguistic standpoint, the sentence conventions (subject, predicate, object) are still there but much of the structure is implied rather than overtly stated: OMG still “means” Oh, I am amazed by your last utterance.”

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