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

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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.”

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public'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.