My friends on Facebook have been passing this image around for the past few days, and I believe no fewer than ten of them have posted it on my wall or tagged me in it on theirs. At first, it made me laugh just by virtue of the topic itself, and I then began to snicker at the sheer number of people whose first thought was, “I bet Jamie will like this” when they read it for the first time.
I’ve been called a stickler, a word nerd, and a nitpicky know-it-all. The labels Grammar Narc, Grammar Ninja, and a Grammar Nazi have all been written in haste and stuck to my chest like nametags. Oftentimes, people I know and love do it in jest, but sometimes the terms come across as slightly more pejorative than facetious. When people I meet find out I once was an English teacher or that I copy edit for a living, they throw up their hands and almost always reply, “I’ll have to watch what I say around you!” I guess they think I have a stash of red pens in my hair and am just waiting for an opportunity to wield them like a samurai on a battlefield in feudal Japan.
When anyone on television states, “This works faster,” my husband knows I will reply, “…more quickly” and roll my eyes. I patronize Publix because it is the only grocery store I know of that has “10 Items or Fewer” on their express lane signs instead of “10 Items or Less.” (If you don’t know why the former is correct, I suggest you educate yourself about count and noncount nouns.)
Yes, I know all the proper ways to punctuate sentences and firmly believe the use of the Oxford is necessary, delightful, and apropos. I choose to use words like myopic, sententious, pulchritudinous, akimbo, and badinage because each of them has etymological value; they are a part of the history of the English language and deserve, like the Blue whale or the wild Mustang, to be preserved for future generations.
I’ve fought the battle for decades—as a writing tutor, an editor, and an educator—and I’m tired of apologizing for knowing the right answers and being derided when I ask others learn them. That’s why Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Finnes just moved from “Greatly Admired” to “Personal Hero” status in my book.
This week, he made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. When asked about the bard’s continuing relevance in modern culture, he stated , “Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.”
Mr. Twisleton-Wykeham-Finnes primarily blames social media sites like Twitter and sound bites for the atrocious decay of the English language, and I have to say that while I concur with him in part, I can’t lay the blame solely at technology’s feet. (Pun intended!) No one put a gun to our heads and demanded that we communicate in 140 characters or fewer. We chose to do so, and we did it with a reckless abandon that would make Syme clap his hands in glee because Newspeak has finally reached its zenith.
E-mail loosened the rules, but it is archaic for most people today, phased out in favor of texting, posting, and other forms of communication that take place via agile thumbs rather than dexterous minds.
The latest craze, which often leaves me gibbering like a low level inmate in Arkham Asylum, is the seemingly arbitrary addition or removal of letters from what would otherwise be a coherent sentence. For example, one of my former students recently shared this literary gem with the rest of us:
myyyy MOM saiddddd iiiiii cannnnnn goooooooooooo 2 the GAAAMMMEEEEEEEE 2niteeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!! :- D <3<3<3
In case you don’t care to translate, the young lady was expressing her elation over the fact her mother had decided to allow her to attend a sporting event at school that evening. She drove the full measure of her bliss home by using a plethora of exclamation points, a wide grin smiley, and three hearts to show that she does indeed love her benevolent parent.
Like Dian Fossey, I spent many years living in the wild with another species (A.K.A “teenagers”) trying to interpret their body language and various methods of communication. From my research, I gleaned several interesting truths. One, if you add extra letters to the end of a word, it means that you are emphasizing it. Adults have been known to do this as well, typically in the interest of sarcasm—“I am sooooooooo tired of meetings!” for example. However, most people limit the effect to one emphatic word rather than appearing as if we took a header into the keyboard.
ALL CAPS, once a total faux pas on “teh intertubes,” is now acceptable for the same purpose. No longer are you “yelling” if you choose to lean on the caps lock button. Also, while most people can’t tell me what a homonym, homophone, or homograph is, they’re all for using it when it shortens the time between texts. Hence, the use of “2” for “to” or “too” in written language these days.
The removal of letters, mostly vowels, is also cause for great concern. It was all well and good when they lifted them on game shows like Bumper Stumpers, but to simply let them fall out of a word like loose teeth is deplorable.
If you’ve not seen it, this is what passes for thoughtful communication in some circles:
yeh dya remembr , i lst contrl! Nearly sure brad fell off!
I don’t have any clue as to the context of this statement, so I can’t help you with that. However, I think this roughly translates to, “Yes. Do you remember how I lost control? I was fairly sure Brad fell off of ____________.” (I couldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, so I added space where the unmentioned object he plummeted from belongs.)
None of the words in the “full length” sentence are terribly difficult to spell, but, for some reason, it is acceptable to cut them at will. Spacing between commas and excessive exclamation points in addition to all this makes me want to do an impression of Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
Like Cassandra, I’ve been warning others about the flippant usage of words and settling for “good enough” when it comes to communication. Words have the power to inspire people, for good or ill, and, like a weapon, they must be respected. God entrusted us with them for glorious and matchless purposes, and we’re squandering them, tossing them aside like disposable paper cups by a water cooler.
How different would the American Revolution have been had Patrick Henry not uttered sentences like these in his speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775?
If we wish to be free if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight!
What might our nation look like today without Martin Luther King’s rallying cry for brotherhood before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963?
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
I’m not asking for a total return to the rules of yesteryear. I understand that the English language is a kind of living, breathing creature with a mutability that has allowed it to flourish around the globe for centuries. This truth alone is enough to convince me it is worth defending, but even more precious than our language’s history is the desolate future we’ll surely face without it.