The last few days of my life have been filled with conversation and debate over the usage of English grammar rules, language education, lol speak, convention, instant messaging etiquette, and any and all things related thereto. It all started over tacos in my kitchen, and now I find myself very much in need of an outlet to express my thoughts and opinions on how language and its use affects not only written communication but verbal; why I can’t quite understand that a graduate student wouldn’t use a question mark where he clearly knows it belongs; and why I abhor the thought that proper grammar seems to be viewed as necessarily restrictive.
I will admit, right off the bat, that I am a self-professed grammar geek. It’s not that I was taught formal grammar at a young age, or that I even really enjoyed that education in later years — I just really like being able to express myself well. I like it when I write a sentence and people can understand what I’ve written and the message that I am trying to convey. I do think, however, that some more formal language and grammar education needs to be re-instituted into the curriculum for young children in schools. There is a reason why my grandmothers and grandfathers knew what verbs, nouns, clauses and the like were, and I didn’t know until my senior year of high school.
Over some particularly yummy tacos, a couple of friends and I were talking about education and the need for a formal system of language education to exist in schools, and the word devolve was used in reference to the state of the English language. I think that the issue here is less that it’s devolving and more that it’s being stripped of its clothes and beaten — rather mercilessly. It’s being stripped of its nuance, its rhythm, and its formidable presence. I liken it to the state of Hollywood’s young starlets who traipse about half-naked and (in some cases) tastelessly, and the fact that they occupy a place in society where the subtly sexy and strong women of old Hollywood once lived.
One argument that was presented during the course of the lively debate my friends and I had was that some forms of written expression (lol speak in particular) were simply shortened, more efficient forms. While I am all for being creative in one’s use of written language and its conventions, I do have a problem with the ignoring of the history and standard use of the language in favour of lol, brb, omg, and any number of lol speak memes. I do understand, while saying that, that the genesis of internet memes and lol speak is due to the instant nature of their primary use: instant messaging. It’s easier to type lol than it is to write laugh out loud. I think that alternate forms of expression can be fabulous things, I just happen to think that they have their time and place. I also think that it’s very limiting to restrict yourself to one form of written expression, and that it can be a mind-expanding to experience many. The reason I say all of this is so that I can feel like I’ve covered off a few bases before I assert that: I very much believe that in order to break the rules of language, you need first know them.
Sticking with the lol speak example, I’ll point out the obvious: when we verbally communicate with people every day, we don’t speak using shortened forms and abbreviations (generally, that is — acronyms aside). We still speak using full words (or dialect-specific variations thereof), and it would seem to me that it is sound practice to communicate with the world in similar ways right across the board. I, myself, could easily write a full-length letter to someone in lol speak, but would it portray the way that I communicate in person? Not at all. I think this point is particularly important when considering professional circumstances, though I find it quite befuddling to speak to someone through instant message or email before meeting them to find that they are lax with capital letters, sentence structure and punctuation, only to meet them and find that their verbal communication seems quite structured and is well-informed by natural punctuation.
This, more often than not, happens in the opposite way: I meet someone who is generally very well spoken, and when I interact with them online, their grammar and structure is vomit-inducing. I recently began chatting online, fairly frequently, with a friend of mine who is a graduate student. While his online English is not as littered with memes as some I’ve seen, I had to tease him for three days before he’d use a question mark at all in our conversation. He’s a very intelligent man, and yet, his online language conduct didn’t show it. I know that it’s judgmental of me to base his intelligence on his written expression, but don’t we all do that to a certain extent? Those with a true command of their language can be heard by a larger and more intelligent audience and thus their ideas and opinions are more widely understood. Much of the reason I required that my friend use a question mark was that I genuinely couldn’t tell whether he was asking a question or not by his phrasing. I consider myself to be a very intuitive person, and one who can take cues well, so this frustrated me. Fortunately, this was a problem that was easily remedied by the employment of a simple element of punctuation. Some situations require a more rigorous and pain-staking solution.
I suppose, for me, written and verbal expression walk hand-in-hand as a representation of who I am. I appreciate that this is not the case for everyone, and that I am particular about grammar and language, as I said. I do, however, think that we should all be given the chance — at a young age — to understand and utilize formal grammar in order that we might get creative with it, later. Isn’t it important that we both understand and are able to use our native language before we begin to confront the rest of the hurdles we face in life? Perhaps proper, formal, and creative ability to use language — across the board — would make life easier for all of us.
This is the point in my post where I want to lay in to the people who still seem to believe that the maths and sciences are the more important parts of a child’s education. I will refrain from doing that, here, and perhaps write a litany on the matter, later. Suffice it to say that, if a child cannot communicate properly in his or her own language, how then are they to be heard in their written exams, letters and even online correspondence (which is terribly important, these days)? It is not lost on most educators, I’m sure, that there are children in the school system who are bright in many ways and are not necessarily being heard because they haven’t been taught to properly express themselves in writing.
I would like to see a system of education in which all students are given the chance to express themselves freely and openly, and in the ways that best befit them; unfortunately, I know that’s not a realistic goal. If we are going to continue to have the education system that we do, test the way we do, and expect what we do of children (and adults!), why not give them a serious chance at succeeding within that system at an early age? I’m not proposing complete educational reform, here. I’m simply positing that there needs to be more emphasis on written expression. I think that’s how it needs to be addressed, too: as written expression. As much as I now love English grammar, I too hated the way it was taught and therefore its use, at one time. Grammar and structure are not restrictive if you don’t view them that way, and I think the education system, as forward-thinking as it is on some things, needs a change in perspective on this as.