The English language is slowly disintegrating. This is not a new thing. With the advent of the Internet and the ubiquity of texting, both good things to be sure, written language has gotten the short end of the stick. The immediacy of written communication has made the speed of composition more important than the accuracy of what is composed. Twitter threw a major wrench in the works and/or was a godsend for communication, depending on what side you’re on. By limiting the character count of a post, it legitimized the use of single letters to represent words, abbreviations, and acronyms in written communication. Grammarians, like myself, came to see Twitter as the final nail in the coffin of formal English. “It’s not my fault, I have to alter the way I write. Twitter made me do it.”
Blessing, or curse?
Look, I’m all for Twitter. I think it’s fun and a good way to share quick thoughts without clogging up your friends’ Facebook feeds, but using abbreviated spellings is lazy and annoying. I think one of the underappreciated benefits of Twitter is that, by limiting character counts, it forces you to edit yourself. One of the basic tenets of good writing is precision, and what better way to teach that than to limit yourself, to force yourself to choose exactly the right words. Composing the perfect tweet can be a fun exercise, but when you take the easy way out, you ruin it for yourself and your readers.
Of course, Twitter is not completely to blame. More and more, “text speak” is being used in academic and professional writing. The sorry state of our educational system and its lack of resources to teach correct grammar is a subject for another post entirely. However, it is another factor that is largely responsible for the state of modern written language. As a result, students use the language they know in inappropriate contexts. This usage becomes commonplace, as some are even surprised to learn that there are better ways in which to express oneself. Although adjusting writing for tone and purpose is part of the Common Core standards, it seems to be an intricacy of language that there often isn’t time to teach effectively (through no fault of the teachers themselves).
However, I think the greatest cause of the decline of the English language is general apathy. People don’t care about using the right words or following the right rules. When communicating, we are often forced to guess or assume what is meant when the wrong words or improper grammar are used. It’s become de rigueur to mock common mistakes with memes, but few people actually practice responsible sentence construction. YKWIM (you know what I mean) has become a blanket excuse, and this is not okay, because no, I don’t know what you mean.
Do you know why? Because words have meaning. Poorly-worded writing is confusing and can cause massive miscommunication. Your readers may know what the words you’re using mean, but they can’t read your mind and don’t know whether what you’ve written is what you even meant. If they give you credit for having used the right words, they will misunderstand what you meant to say. If the reader assumes you’ve made a mistake, there’s still potential for error in their attempt to figure out what should have been written instead. The prevalence of written communication in the modern era actually makes correct grammar and usage so much more important. You are often not present to explain yourself as you would be in conversation. Exchanging texts or emails to clarify mistakes wastes time and defeats the efficiency of written communication. In short: if you don’t do it right, there’s no point in doing it at all.
There are those who would call me a “Grammar Nazi.” First of all, I’m not suggesting that those with bad grammar be rounded up and shipped off on trains to be executed in droves, so stop with that (see, the word Nazi has a meaning and you want to be careful how you use it). As you’re applying it here, it doesn’t say what you mean to say. You mean to say I am a grammar perfectionist, and yes, yes I am.