Friday, September 28, 2007

Why I judge you for using bad grammar

"The language denotes the man. A coarse or refined character finds its expression naturally in a coarse or refined phraseology."


This is an opinion article I wrote for my university newspaper, Student Direct.

The English language is under siege. It is under siege not from a hostile invader or a devious interloper, but rather from sloth and a lack of care. But the result is the same: the detriment and dissolution of a once-proud establishment is evident; the war of attrition is beginning to take its toll.

The first salvo was the spelling checker. A brilliant idea, when used to augment one’s spelling ability, the spell checker has devolved into a crutch. This can be shown in two ways. We all know someone who relies on the spell checker, and its younger sibling, the auto-corrector, because they no longer truly know how to spell. But the effects of this go much deeper. More and more, people fail to understand the difference between “their” and “they’re”, between “your” are “you’re”. Even wholly disconnected words have begun to be interchangeable. On far too many messageboards and facebook walls have I seen people who cannot differentiate the words “lose” and “loose” despite their wildly different meanings.

The strongest weapon in this epic battle, however, came in the form of small messages, both SMS text messages and instant messenger clients such as MSN. A new shorthand arose, especially in the case of SMS, where a 160-character hard limit enforced a decided sense of brevity. “You’re” and “your” became not only interchangeable, but reduced to “ur”, “are” became “r” and so forth.

The real damage did not come, however, until this shorthand extended its tendrils into mainstream society. With a short message, the brevity I described is understandable, and even I cannot decry its use. But when that vile shorthand begins to appear in emails, letters and (as has become increasingly common) submitted essays in school, a serious blow has been dealt to the English language. Combined with a general decay in attention to grammar and spelling, eventual capitulation often seems inevitable.

So, why does this matter? After all, language is fluid and dynamic; the English we speak now varies dramatically from that spoken by Shakespeare and his cohort. Slang and idiomatic expressions have long shaped the face of any language and always will. We incorporate new words both into the common tongue and into our official bastion of the language, The Oxford English Dictionary. Is this not simply another evolution of the same process? I don’t think it is, and I believe this for a number of reasons.

The first is the motivation behind this shift, and the speed at which is has occurred. These changes have been inspired by laziness and imprecision, not by an organic evolutionary process. They have entered the language quickly, leaving older generations often unawares and leaving little time for a truly cohesive set of language to coalesce.

My biggest qualm, however, is that these words are neither new nor more-descriptive. In fact, they achieve quite the contrary: when you confuse “you’re” with “your” by shortening them all into “ur”, you lose (not loose) variety in the language. The context may differentiate the meaning, but the flavour of the language has gone. Language is a tool. Like any craftsman, a writer hones his art through the application of a tool, and imperfections and dullness in that tool results in an inferior end product. One would never expect a carver to work with a dull knife, yet people are increasingly writing with dulled and rusty linguistics.

It’s not a minor point that in Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak, the pride of Oceania, is hailed for its perpetually-shrinking vocabulary. That the language gets smaller every year is seen by the misguided souls who push it as a benefit. In the mock-Communist world of the novel, that lack of flavour is representative of a world under the thumb of tyranny. The meaning is there, but everything that makes a language unique and colourful has been stripped away. In such a world, Shakespeare would not write “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, he would instead simply state “I don’t care who your family is”. The meaning remains, but the joy and depth of the phrase is forever lost.

This war rages all around us, and will do so for the foreseeable future. It does so on badly-spelt YouTube pages, it does so in hastily-checked emails. The warriors are not active participants, but merely those too lazy to care. And for this, I judge them. Because if you choose to not expend the necessary effort to craft your words with care, you help the denigration of a mellifluous tongue. You don’t need to be a linguistic perfectionist, but if you know not whether you routinely lose your keys or loose them, I will forever feel scorn towards your indifference.

"Now, we must all fear evil men. But there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men."

- The Boondock Saints

1 comment:

frescasaurus said...

i'm trying SO hard to behave and not correct all the grammatical errors in this. ;)

good points, i understand where you're coming from, and agree with a lot of it.

however, to clarify: the changes that have "organically" occurred in the past DID happen, frequently, for the same reasons of laziness that inspired the hateful "your" -> "ur" shift. for example, many of the irregular verbs we used to have (past tense of climb = clomb) changed to make them more regular (now, climbed, because we're more comfortable with the "ed" morpheme). arguably, this also destroyed complexity and eloquence within the language. not saying it's good or bad, but i'd just like to hear a bit more on why you think language change ISN'T generally motivated by laziness and increased attempts to streamline...