I have no high horse to mount when I criticize other people’s grammar. There is no grammatical sin I have not committed, usually in the middle of a cover letter or some other important document. So this isn’t an indictment. “I am not commenting, merely pointing to a fact,” as Orwell might have said.

As part of my research into the recent past, I’ve visited a lot of old archived webpages. Believe it or not, people’s spelling and grammar was better back then than it is now. People writing on the internet, anyway. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s noticeably better on average.

In 2016, I see a lot of malaprops (or malapropisms), even in news articles on mainstream websites. It’s become especially noticeable to me in the last year or so. Here are some examples off the top of my head:

  • Writing “of” instead of “have,” e.g. “I would of called him, but I forgot.” This is exceedingly common now.
  • Lots of malaprops involving figures of speech, e.g. “Sharpest knife in the draw” (drawer).
  • Three-or-more-syllable words with similar meanings getting confused, e.g. “accessive” for “excessive.”

I’m sure you can find a page from 2003 that has one or more of these malaprops on it––but they are much more common today, even on mainstream news and commentary websites.

What’s going on here? Am I imagining this trend? Has anyone done a high-level analysis of grammar on the internet and how it changes over time? I’d appreciate any linguist who could give me insight into what’s happening (or not happening) in this case.

Photo by Tony Webster, CC-BY-2.0.