now with more cowbell
The death of the English language?
Posted: 2005-07-07 20:26
No comment(s)
Author: Phil Gengler
Section: Stuff

Last week, there was an "Ask Slashdot" submission in which the author noted that he "noticed that a surprisingly large number of native English speakers, who are otherwise very technically competent, seem to lack strong English skills." As someone who served as an editor for a newspaper at a tech school, I certainly have an opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, I came across it the next day, and given that Slashdot stories tend to be rather short-lived, I figured I'd give the issue a more thorough treatment and post it here.

The author comments that "It baffles me that a culture so obsessed with technical knowledge and accuracy can demonstrate such little attention to detail when it comes to communicating that knowledge with others." First, this is a blatant generalization, as there are plenty of technically savvy people who make an effort to follow the "rules" of the language; I like to think I'm part of such a group. On that note, my observation has been that such people are outnumbered by those who take the less structured approach, instead opting to use other means to get their ideas across.

By "other means," I mean any number of shortcuts that have been adopted and accepted by many people. For example, checking one's spelling is not often done for 'quick and dirty' forms of communication, such as an instant message, e-mail, or website comment. A number of mistakes arise from this, leading to common misspellings such as "teh" in place of "the." As real-time, text-based chat, be it IRC, IM, or something else, became more popular, shorthand was adopted for some of the more commonly used phrases. Otherwise meaningless arrangements of letters such as "lol," "bbl," and "afk" (to name a few) became part of the language used when communicating through the Internet.

One apparent result of the ability to communicate via the Internet has been an increase in the amount of "written" communication that takes place between two or more people. Many years ago, writing letters was effectively the only way to communicate with someone not in the immediate area. When the phone system grew, telephone calls became the more common way of having an informal (and in many cases, formal) conversation with someone. Writing a letter was reserved for more formal communications, and as a result, was subject to a higher attention to detail and accuracy. Having a voice conversation, as was possible with the telephone, has not been subject to the same standards of language use; I believe this is because once you have said something to someone, it cannot be taken back. With written communication, you have the chance to look it over as you compose it, as well as after, all before the content reaches the recipient. With this, it was expected that you would look it over and ensure it's syntactical and semantic correctness.

With the Internet, and the ability to communicate quickly and cheaply through the primarily text-based medium, informal communication was written again. Ultimately, the fact that such communication was quick and cheap is, in my opinion, the reason that language standards tend not to be applied. Most electronic communication is fleeting; instant messages are rarely kept around any longer than a single chat session, in-game communications are not logged, and most e-mail messages are not saved. This is in contrast with many letters, which were often saved. (I do acknowledge, however, that in total, electronic communications are, in fact, stored more often than physical correspondence, through caches and server logging facilities. Most of the time, the sender and the recipient never deal with any of these intermediates.) As a result, mistakes are more easily forgotten, and corrections more easily made available. Rather than thoughtfully compose a lengthy e-mail message, most people will send short messages with little or no thought, sending another message when something else crosses their mind.

I believe that I have digressed from the original point. The tendency toward short but frequent electronic communication is not limited solely to technical people; it afflicts nearly everyone who communicates via the Internet. In that, I disagree with the original author's view that such problems exist only in, or to a larger degree in, the technical community. I do find it more surprising that such an attitude is fostered among programmers, though, since programming languages are very strict in the syntax they allow. One of the comments responding to the original article touches on this point; the comment's author makes the distinction between a compiler, which can only understand things written in its syntax, and a human, who is capable of extracting mostly-correct meaning from sentences that don't conform to the rules of the language.

One of the comments replying to this makes a point of noting that "communicating effectively" with a human does not require rigid adherence to a set of rules. This argument is echoed in a number of other comments to the article; the idea is that, if the recipient is able to understand the meaning of what the originator was trying to communicate, then it does not matter how strictly the communication followed the "rules." In various threads up and down the discussion, proponents of this idea disagree with those who believe that there is more to communication than just understanding the idea.

I have mixed feelings about both ideas. On the one hand, I tend to feel that when something can be done just as well without following a set of arbitrary rules, then the rules should probably go. On the other, and as someone who tends to be pedantic about language use, I do agree that the way something is communicated conveys information above and beyond that which was intended. Someone who tends to be very lazy in their writing, who frequently misspells words and misuses grammar, can come across as someone who does not much care for what they are trying to say. This certainly depends on what it is that is being communicated; for someone trying to make an effective point, I tend to believe that the presentation is important, though not as important as the content itself.

In other cases, it is hard to speak generally. When someone is writing with the aim of an ephemeral comment, perhaps with something like a not-too-funny joke, I tend to be much more tolerant of spelling and grammatical errors. When reading something that is meant to be "professional," such as a series entry on a website or some sort of proposal, I expect that the author would have expended the time and effort to proofread. When I see writings which have misspellings, especially on common words, or include sentences which take far too much effort to parse correctly, or have missing or extraneous punctuation, it diminishes the quality of the entire work.

Now I am certainly no less guilty of this than anyone else; for quite a while, I used to spell the word "sentence" as "sentance," and there have been several instances when I have failed to perform my "due diligence" on something I have posted here, and only found out about the mistake when I notice a hit from Google on a misspelled word. Fortunately, this doesn't happen very often. I also admit that I tend to be very pedantic about language usage. One of my pet peeves is when someone uses the phrase "begs the question" in a place where "raises the question" would be correct. The debate goes on about whether the common misuse of this phrase means that it has become part of the English language (for which there is, in effect, no governing body).

At the heart of all this, however, there is what I believe to be a root cause: a lack of proper education of the use of the language. While I imagine that a basic grasp of the English language is taught in all schools (I can't say for sure, and don't want to make the generalization here), continuing education and reinforcement of those topics already taught is lacking. From my discussions with others, it appears that my school district's curriculum was an exception, with an English course being a required part of school through the eighth grade; where it was, however, very few people in the class would take it at all seriously; there appeared to be a prevailing attitude among the students that they were being 'babied.' People seemed to feel that they already knew the language, and being made to learn more of it by then was something of an insult. Even in other classes, where writing assignments were given, very little was done to observe and correct most mistakes. Certainly teachers would correct the basic errors in a piece of writing, but as my experience as an editor showed, these corrections were often superfluous. Poor sentence formation was frequently left uncorrected; you would be sure to find a red circle around the use of "it's" as a possessive, and run-on sentences and sentence fragments would be marked, but you would rarely find suggestions on how to rearrange a sentence or a paragraph to have it make more sense.

Once more students started chatting online, I think that many of them found it easy to be lazy; certainly, it is the culture that exists around the Internet. Unlike a school assignment, there usually isn't anyone who is going to correct the spelling or grammar of a forum post or instant message, and so since similar mistakes are happening all around us without any major complaints, it is easy to get by without ensuring accuracy. The pseudonyms we can often hide behind made this even simpler. This can cause people who usually strive for correctness to slip up; after all, it would generally take a lot of effort to connect something written on the Internet to a real person.

Unfortunately, I don't really see any way to correct this situation. With the Internet becoming a larger part of more students' lives at a younger age, seeing "Internet English" in so many places leads to them believing it is the right way (which can be seen when chat shorthand makes its way into school assignments), and so they keep using it, other kids see it and start using it, and the cycle continues. Whether this is ultimately good or bad for communication remains to be seen.


No new comments are allowed.