Author granted license

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2018




Green Bag Press




It is always with a certain amount of wry, knowing amusement that we turn to the thoughts of people from the past remarking on the future (that is, our present). It is similar to how slightly older children view slightly younger children. They were so innocent then, those thinkers of the past! Look at what they thought computers could do, what language could be! How adorably naïve! Not like us, we who have put away our childish things.

Of course, the science fiction of our present may someday seem as pathetically misconceived as that of the past. So, too, will many of our current ideas (and, alas, much of our current scholarship) on such future forward topics as technology, the internet, and even the way in which new forms of communication (e.g., email, text messaging, social media) have affected our language.

Consider, then, “Machinery and English Style,” an essay written by Robert Lincoln O’Brien in a 1904 volume of the Atlantic Monthly. O’Brien discusses the manners in which the typewriter, dictation, shorthand, and the telegraph (new technological shifts of his time) negatively affected the English language. Like much of what is written about technology, this essay was rapidly outdated and, now, just over a century later, can only really be viewed as an archeological relic. Yet, perhaps because of its obsolescence, the essay is a fascinating read today. In it, and in our presentist reaction to it, we can glean understandings applicable to modern discussions of technology and language.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.