A casual observer on any university or college campus watching undergraduates on English courses heading into their classrooms may well conclude that the digital future is already with us. These students are now less likely to be arriving with bundles of books under their arms and much more likely to be carrying a lightweight laptop or tablet. They will not merely be word-processing assessment tasks for their coursework or reading texts online, but diving into digital databases and archives, and taking part in virtual discussions with other students. Although as an academic discipline English is still strongly identified with terms, concepts and formats from the era of print, it is increasingly infused with the potentialities of digital technology and digital culture. If, as seems likely for the foreseeable future, both technologies continue to co-exist, how will this influence our teaching, research and scholarship?
Some aspects of English's digital future provide researchers and students with opportunities to extend and develop established academic enquiries, using the power of digital technology to do things differently and at scale. Other aspects tap into the way that the digital culture of the twenty-first century is changing the way we read, write and interact with each other; these still-fluid developments include the impact of contemporary higher education's technology-rich environments on pedagogy. In some areas, continuities overlap with new developments, most markedly in English Language Studies. Perhaps the most obvious example is corpus linguistics, whose development runs in tandem with the increasing sophistication and decreasing size of mainframe computers. In the 1960s Brown University created the million-word Standard Corpus of Every-day American English, and this has been followed by both increasingly larger corpora and smaller, more specialized, corpora. Such digitized collections allow investigations of language features across corpora designed to represent particular genres or to represent, as far as possible, the language as a whole. Specialized corpora relating to a particular writer, text-type or genre allow easy searching, comparison and, where relevant, quantification. Corpora based on geographical or historical sources support investigation of English in particular places, at particular periods and through change over time. In relation to contemporary English, Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy's work on spoken and written corpora has enhanced our understanding of the difference in the rules of grammar that differentiate the two.