Online language – What does it look like?

This the second in a series of blogs looking at online language… What is it? How is it being used? Why do we need to teach it? Here Esther looks at four different characteristics of this method of communication – what features and etiquette do we see developing online?

It’s an exciting time for online language – it’s been an evolution from the beginning of communication on the internet in the 1960s, the development of ASCII through text speak and into tweets, instant messages, Snapchats, status updates, memes, likes and omg, lol…

This new language is creeping into all aspects of our lives whether we socialise on Facebook, text our kids and grandkids, or email for work. Our digital capability skills, knowledge and experience has to be broad and flexible – and part of this involves understanding and communicating using new kinds of language.


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There are many different forms to this language and I have divided them into four main ones for this blog. The first one I am really interested in is emoticons. A couple of years ago I was writing a Kahoot quiz on emoticons and I did some research looking for inspiration. Incidentally, I have now delivered this quiz well over a hundred times to countless teachers and managers across HE, FE and Skills in the UK. Let me know if you have a Kahoot account and want me to share it with you.

Among many fascinating and surprising things I found was that Moby Dick has been translated into emojis. You can find the hardback version under the name Emoji Dick and the free pdf version here. Sometime later I found that the 200 most common words in the Christian bible have also been translated into emojis and you can access the Emoji Bible website here. If you are the sort of person who likes to verify its credentials and find out more about a word – please check out Emojipedia for a world of information and background.

Here is one of my quiz questions: what do you think this sentence means?

emoticons sentence

Answer: What time is coffee? Are you buying?

A second creative and exciting form of online language is acronyms. Acronyms have played an important part in English for centuries – where would we be without SOS, DIY, RSVP, ID and a thousand others? Common acronyms I come across in business circles include BRB, ATM, TBH, IMO, DM to name a few. In my various social circles the list is endless! I have great fun in my quiz asking participants how many of them use the acronym LOL for ‘lots of love’ instead of ‘laugh out loud’ (which is correct). There is always either one person in the room or somebody knows someone who uses it for ‘lots of love’ – much to the confusion of friends, colleagues and family.

A third form is punctuation which can be used to create emoticons :-S or to add body language or tone to a chunk of text ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Punctuation can be used cleverly to add *emphasis* or … to recreate speaking (um) pauses… and [smiling politely] imitate voice!!! Like SHOUTING… One of my quiz questions is this – What is the tone of this status? “You did a great job on that presentation! ;-)“   Is it Genuine? Sarcastic? or Joke? The room is always split – half choose genuine, half choose sarcastic or joke. I have to point out that if one half of the room used this winky face in a message, the other half of the room who received the message would misconstrue the tone, and could potentially be offended…

The fourth creative and fun form is writing the spoken word as it sounds. Many examples can be found of accents being reproduced in online messages, statuses and tweets. Some of my favourite examples are from Scottish tweeters – google it, you won’t be disappointed. For example “the police came tae ma door and told me my dugs were chasing people on bikes ma dugs don’t even have bikes” @darylgaughanx.


When these forms of language (and other forms such as images, memes, gifs and others) come together into chunks of text, messages or statuses the results can be creative, funny, moving and inspiring. But to some this language is completely inaccessible. The rules are being made up as we go along and people can feel alienated and excluded. And some, whose views on language are purist and driven by an insistence on traditional spelling, grammar and punctuation, would rather not engage at all.


(If you would like to see more examples of creative online language, here’s a link to my Tumblr collection of artefacts, articles and amusing memes )

(You can read sections of the PhD here )

(Have a look at Jisc’s work on digital capability here )


  1. Online language – Journey to a PhD

Coming next:

  1. Online language – A new species of language
  2. Online language – How are communities using it?
  3. Online language – Why do we need to teach it?
  4. Online language – Bilingualism
  5. Online language – Somewhere along the line

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