© 2022 MICHIGAN RADIO
91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

TWTS: The actual reality of "virtual" vs. "online"

twts.jpg

Before there were online possibilities for how students went to class, we just went to class. For many students, that’s simply not the case anymore, especially not during the pandemic.

Given the ubiquity of online learning, this question from listener Veronica Vera comes as no surprise: “When we talk about students who are taking classes in school (not in a virtual environment), how do we refer to those classes? In other words, what would be the opposite of virtual classes?”

The phrase we’re seeing the most often is “in-person” classes, and it actually predates the pandemic. As soon as we started to have online education, we needed a way to talk about non-online education.

Linguists call this a retronym, or a word that’s formed to create a new distinction when a new thing comes along. Other examples of retronyms include “cloth diaper,” “analog watch,” and “landline phone.”

You may have noticed how Veronica referred to “virtual classes” where some of us would’ve said “online classes.” When it comes to talking about things that exist or occur on computers or the internet, “virtual” and “online” have come to be used fairly synonymously.

However, there are people who feel that a distinction between “virtual” and “online” should be maintained. That’s because “virtual” also means to be very close to being something without actually being something.

People in favor of maintaining a distinction would argue that a meeting is still a meeting, whether it occurs in person or online, and that “virtual meeting” is a misnomer.

As we often talk about on That’s What They Say though, words change meaning over time, and “virtual” and “online” are now used synonymously when we talk about things like meetings or education or teaching.

This usage isn’t surprising, given how “virtual” has been used in computing for decades to mean not physically existing but made to appear to exist through software, as in “virtual reality.”

Stay Connected
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Related Content