Saturday, July 19, 2008

Manual of Style Entry: "Teh Internets"

Virginia Heffernan:

I am stumped by how to excerpt the language on message boards and blogs... The Sanhedrins of style at newspapers are not so amused by the merry game of signification. (Derrida’s not big with real newspapermen.) Most of them seem to believe in standardizing spoken English — to a point. At The New York Times, using nonstandard spelling to reflect dialect — “he wuz a good friend” — is seen as a sketchy business, since no two writers do it the same way and since it can reflect bias. But rhetorical eccentricities ought to be preserved. “I’m friends with him 20 years,” for example, does not have to become, “I have been friends with him for 20 years.”

Some architects of Times style have proposed that communication on a message board should be treated like the text of a novel. As novels of sorts, message boards ought to be excerpted using the same protocols that newspaper critics use to quote from fiction. That is, we should go light on the academic sics, addition brackets and omission ellipses, which in a paper can come across as sneering, cluttered, pretentious or all three.

By contrast, when transcribing message-board posts, idiosyncrasies of language should be preserved as far as possible and taken as intentional, unless in context they are obviously evidence that the writer has innocently hit the wrong key (“teh,” “rihgt”). A “wuz” on the Internet remains “wuz” in the paper. In thorny cases, a critic or reporter can extenuate a passage outside of quotation marks. (“ ‘The soiled fish,’ writes Melville, conjuring an odd image with a ‘soiled’ where perhaps ‘coiled’ was intended.”)
But if there's a Derridean lesson here at all, it's that there isn't any such thing as "obvious evidence that the writer has innocently hit the wrong key." Words like "teh" that start as typos quickly become independent signs, even if they're ironic ones. It's just like Saussure's analysis of onomotopoeia: it may begin as noise, but it can't escape the logic of signification.

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