Is it time to de-standardize the English language?

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

A lot has been said about what communications technologies like online chat, SMS and Twitter are doing to the English language. Shortcuts like "u" and "r" and "lol" and "brb" have spread into "icymi" and the ever-dreaded "yolo."

Is this bad for the English language? Some will say that proper English is still taught and tested and there are new books coming out all the time written in proper(ish) English. But ask college instructors what they're getting from their students – some of them are getting the caliber of work you'd expect from a middle school student.

See what I did there, with the "they're" and the "their"? I did that correctly. Did you have to go back to check?

Sure, there's always been a bit of a divide between formal and informal writing. In a formal setting, I'd never start a statement with "but," and I'd throw out colloquialisms like "see what I did there."

There are Twitter bots that target Tweets in all caps and that find incorrect usage of your vs. you're. [Apologies; Twitter says I'm supposed to capitalize Tweet. I don't like it, either.]

Online comic The Oatmeal regularly takes on grammar, giving us instructions on semicolons, using i.e. vs. e.g., and reminding us that "definately" is not a word, but "definitely" is.

This got me thinking, though. We've been speaking the current incarnation of the English language for just about 500 years now (the Great Vowel Shift wrapped up around 1550, but started closer to 1450). Noah Webster began standardizing spelling and punctuation in his first dictionary, published in 1828. So, we've been speaking this language for 500 years and it hasn't even been standardized for 200. Not only that, but we're adding more and more words every year, so English is still a growing language.

Two hundred years ago, it was OK to write "center" or "centre," to capitalize Very Important Words (like Tweet, apparently) you wanted to emphasize, to write run-on sentences without commas or hyphens, and in general to write paragraphs so long you'd lose your place on the page if the typeset didn't have enough white space.

With character limits in our communications and the advent of video as a mass-communication tool, correct written English is, for better or worse, something left for formal settings like print media and cover letters, though more and more businesses are content with a run of the mill cover letter (Dear sir or madam, I am applying for an administrative position with ABC Company. Please see the enclosed video introduction and resume. I hope we can Skype soon. Yours, &c.) and a personality test.

Fewer and fewer jobs require strong written language skills; if you're good in person or over the phone, people can accept SMS-speak in their written communication, because more and more of their written communication is via SMS.

So why not revert to covering only the basics in school, and leave formal written English as a secondary school elective or even a college course?

I don't know that I'm willing to go that far, but I definitely see an argument for de-standardizing spelling and grammar while we wait to see what the future of communications technology is. Maybe formal English will become more useful again, but maybe it won't.

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