Such DFW. Very Orwell. So Doge. Wow.


Jon Evans


Jon Evans is the CTO of the engineering consultancy HappyFunCorp; the award-winning author of six novels, one graphic novel, and a book of travel writing; and TechCrunch’s weekend columnist since 2010.

More posts from Jon Evans

Let’s talk about doge, but first let’s talk about the late great David Foster Wallace, who 13 years ago wrote a classic essay about modern English* entitled “Tense Present,” which, realistically, is better than anything I will ever write, so I should maybe just point you to it and end this post here.

But I won’t. Not least because I strongly suspect that if DFW had not taken his own life five years ago, he would already have updated “Tense Present” for the modern era. He almost would have had to.

It is instructive that his essay includes the phrase You don’t (despite withering cultural pressure), have to use a computer, but you can’t escape language. That may have been true, just, in 2001, but it is not true today. You cannot escape computers any more — and that fact has affected language in a way which is, if you ask me, nothing short of revolutionary.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, most people didn’t write much, and even if they did, only a tiny handful of people might read the results. As a result, most of the words that people read were written by a tiny elite group of authors and journalists, and almost exclusively in an anodyne, pristine mode which DFW in his classic essay called SWE, for “Standard Written English.” (Also “Standard White English,” but I’m not even going to go there, except to say again that you should read his essay.)

I’ll go further and say that the overwhelming majority of widely-read nonfiction was written in an even smaller, strictly controlled subset of SWE – call it CSWE, for Clinical Standard Written English. Textbooks. Cookbooks. IRS instructions. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the British broadsheets, etc. All written in a similar mode: authoritative, declamatory, distant, dispassionate, impersonal, and (allegedly) neutral. Formal, pure, and precise.

The problem, of course, is that English, as actually used by 99% of its practitioners, has never been even close to formal, pure, and precise. As James Nicoll** famously put it:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.

So why did SWE become the standard? DFW answers:

The real truth, of course, is that SWE is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as “Standard” by same. That it is the shibboleth of the Establishment and an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity.

Easy enough to perpetuate when only a tiny elite were writing the words that most read; but now is different. Now is the era of social media. Now people are both reading and writing more words, by far, than they ever have before — which is great, right? — but only a small and diminishing fraction of those words are written in SWE.

Once upon a time, high-school teachers and broadsheet newspapers and their ilk defined how English was written, and the few semantic scofflaws were the linguistic equivalent of outlaw renegades. No longer. Now that definition is provided by Reddit. Nowadays we have different online dialects for cats and dogs, and people actually use both. Nowadays even scholarly articles may include a “tl;dr” summary. Nowadays:

And nowadays — this is where things get interesting — people who write in CSWE actually mark themselves as untrustworthy by doing so. Because the new usage, call it Modern Written English, is everything CSWE is not: first-person, colloquial, breezy, open, and personal. That’s what readers understand and trust. But if you write like a high-school essay, or the Wall Street Journal? That is now a big red flag. Your readers don’t know you … but they do know that you have deliberately hidden who you are, by donning that mask called CSWE. And on some level they do not like it.

DFW again:

When I say or write something, there are actually a whole lot of different things I am communicating. The propositional content (the actual information I’m trying to convey) is only one part of it. Another part is stuff about me, the communicator. Everyone knows this. It’s a function of the fact that there are uncountably many well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. “I was attacked by a bear!” to “Goddamn bear tried to kill me!” to “That ursine juggernaut bethought to sup upon my person!” and so on […] “Correct” English usage is, as a practical matter, a function of whom you’re talking to and how you want that person to respond — not just to your utterance but also to you.

This is the weird thing the Internet has done to language: Standard Written English — or, at least, its most fundamentalist form, Clinical Standard Written English — has actually become incorrect in most online contexts.

Before he wrote 1984, George Orwell wrote a famous essay called “Politics and the English Language,” which decried:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.

I submit to you that, increasingly, this is how Clinical Standard Written English sounds to the Reddit-reading masses: orthodox, lifeless, soulless, a parade of pale impersonal zombie words drained of blood by some linguistic vampire, if you’ll pardon the mixed horror-movie metaphor. I’m not saying it actually is, necessarily; I’m saying that even well-written CSWE is, to many, fatally undercut by being CSWE. It still has its place — Wikipedia, say, and a few other sources whose pretensions of authority are still deemed acceptable, like maybe The Economist — but it is not the standard mode of our ongoing online discourse. It is out of place there. It is incorrect.

That in turn is one reason why — online, at least — a new generation of irreverent, colloquial, acerbic online sites is eating old media’s lunch. Compare this brilliant, heartfelt, vicious, deeply personal Grantland piece about performance-enhancing drugs with, well, anything ever published by the Sports section of the New York Times. Can you even imagine the Gray Lady ever publishing anything so profane, so offensive, so informal, so full of questions without answers? Hell no you can’t; in part because you can’t imagine the NYT publishing something so vibrant, so scattershot, so alive — in other words, something not written in Clinical Standard Written English.

The so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which in a way is the basis of 1984, suggests that language influences thought. There isn’t actually a whole lot of experimental evidence which supports this; but it seems to me that the language to which one is exposed does influence what and how one writes.

And that’s why I welcome doge, and LOLcats, and every other atrocity visited upon the English language by the Internet. They’re anarchic. They’re juvenile. They’re a horrific mess. And they make it clear that we can and do shape the language however we want, rather than being shaped by it, for the sake of greater beauty, truth, and endlessly repetitive ironic comic gold.

So I for one am all in favor of the Internet’s slow but inexorable unwinding of that impersonal straitjacket CSWE, even though I personally happen to be unusually fluent in it, which has benefited me in countless little and large ways over the years. I applaud the eruption of a thousand awful-but-perfect linguistic grotesqueries such as doge and GIF listicles. Because it seems to me that Standard Written English, for all its virtues, has become something of a desiccated undead corpse. I submit that whatever can breathe new life into it — even bizarre memes, subversive polemics, and the mad ravings of anonymous redditors; hell, even 4chan — should be welcomed with open arms. Because words matter. Language matters. And, with respect, it’s past time for last century’s Standard Written English to give way to something a little more lively.

Image credit: the late great David Foster Wallace, by Steve Rhodes, on Flickr.

*More specifically about “the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography … Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?”

**Who, by odd coincidence, I’ve known since I was 12 years old.

More TechCrunch

Consolidation is here in cybersecurity, as bigger players in the space pick up startups that will help them grapple with the ever-expanding attack surface for enterprises as they move more…

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up its machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

21 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

3 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

3 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’