The Art of Code-Switching in Online Writing

It’s an everyday skill in communication, but you probably don’t know it.  Each day, we interact with many different individuals, and we do so on multiple forums, with varying means.  For every person you address, you adjust your tone, diction and verbal attitude to fit the appropriate recipient. For instance, at work, you might speak with a fellow co-worker using slang or vernacular common to both of your speaking habits.  But when the boss walks your way, you change your demeanor, you change your tone, and you use different words to reflect the degree of formal respect for a person in a position of authority.  This intuitive action — the shifting of your conversational mode — is called code-switching.

Linguistically speaking, code-switching has to do with intermixing different language capacities to communicate. It is one’s use of more than one language in conversation. For those who speak multiple languages, code-switching means having  the ability to, when prompted, change language variety to suit communication.  But for everyday purposes, code-switching is the act of matching language with the person with whom you are speaking. Now, more than ever, it’s a noteworthy skill to be able to adjust your words to suit your audience.  Being able to switch from formal to casual language in the appropriate circumstances means that you are a conscientious individual who thinks before you speak. 

So, let’s address this concept as it applies to everyday writing.  We’re on our computers a lot these days.  We constantly write text messages, chat messages, emails, posts, blog posts and updates, and what we don’t always realize is that all of these messages send a message about the type of writer you are.  I notice every single day an example of inappropriate language applied in very public forums.  Sure, Facebook is a place where we can interact with our friends and family, but we must remember that employers will peruse pages to see what sorts of activities and communications we engage regularly.  If a person happens to be a socialite who posts lots of pictures and captions, she must be aware that the pictures and words combine to create her overall image.  That can be good or bad, and I’m sure we have all been made aware just by participating. 

Maybe you don’t think about it, but being careful to be “correct” in your writing is a means of code-switching.  Most people these days write the way they speak, but what they don’t know is that the way they speak is often incorrect.  Even highly educated speakers err when communicating.  No, I’m not suggesting that we all become language gurus.  I’m simply offering the tip that when you think about the words you speak or write, and the way you deliver them, you will gain respect as a competent communicator, which can only help you in the long run.

Here are some tips for online writing and choosing a more formal code:

  • check your punctuation and spelling
  • capitalize where necessary
  • choose words carefully and make sure the word you’re using is the right one for the occasion
  • if you use slang, make sure you use quotation marks
  • consider your audience and have consideration for what their reactions may be

Any other pointers to add? Please leave comments!


Posted on May 26, 2011, in Rhetorical Issues. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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