Watch your language

Jeanette Kendall

Those who think the English language is in decline due to technologically-advanced ways of communicating, such as text messaging and instant messaging can relax.

According to Dr. Seth Katz, assistant professor of English at Bradley University, people have complained about the decline of language since the Renaissance.

“Language is going to hell only if you have no tolerance for change,” Katz said.


Katz said language is fluid and constantly changes.

He describes language as “organic” and something which cannot be stopped from changing.

To illustrate how language changes over time, Katz said younger people tend to say the expression “on accident” while older people say “by accident,” the latter being correct.

“Young people always rebel against language which adults hate, just like teen music,” he said.

Just as fashion seems to repeat every 20 years, words retire and resurface in  the English language. Katz said the jazz crowd originally used the word “groovy” and the word resurfaced later with the hippie generation.

And new words seem to surface suddenly to mark a moment in time. During the Clinton administration, the word “wonk,” which means a person who knows a topic forward and backward, surfaced.

Today, there are many new words that have resulted with technology, such as tweet, webisode, unfriend, blog, and vlog.

There is also a new abbreviated way to communicate when texting or instant messaging. Many have seen expressions, such as “Ur l8t” (you’re late), ttyl (talk to ya later) or LOL (laughing out loud) in these types of messages.

Again, Katz said this does not mean that people will forget how to spell words or become bumbling idiots.

Hasty messages

“In a world where, increasingly, messages are delivered in smaller and hastier bits (think of Twitter and texting), more and more messages are delivered in more and more haste, and with less and less patience and craft. So it may seem that we are being buried in bad writing. However, most of these messages are simply the ones we would have left hastily scrawled on the kitchen table once upon a time, or messages we would have delivered by a brief phone call, or messages we would have saved to deliver later at leisure,” Katz said. “If you use Facebook, then you have encountered the person who has to tell you all the minute details of their day as they are happening. Once, rather than appearing in writing for the world to read, those messages would have waited for dinner table conversation.”

Katz agreed there are still rules to follow in certain situations, and if a student writes “gr8t” to mean “great” on an English paper, that is a problem. But Katz has not witnessed this much.

“I find very little — if any — of the habits of texting or e-mail creeping into my students’ writing. They understand the differences, and they can shift deftly from one register to the other. They more often tend, as students always have, to have trouble distinguishing between the particular turns of phrase appropriate to speaking, and those appropriate to writing. That comes from not reading enough — and there have always been people who don’t read enough to develop an ear for the differences between writing and speaking. I don’t think everyone can learn to write formal English well.

“I encourage my students to know their weaknesses (for example, if they are poor editors) and to find friends who can help them — as people do in the real working world: one has the ideas, but another needs to craft them into a report, and a third needs to edit and polish. The schools do a disservice to students if they always treat writing as a solo act,” Katz said.

Different roles

Just as college students and teachers have a role to perform regarding the English language, Katz said everyone speaks differently, depending on the setting.

“You talk to your friends differently than you talk to your parents and the clerk at Target,” he said. “We play different roles.”

The question of whether society maintains formal standard English is a complex one, Katz said.

“I don’t know how much active maintenance it actually needs: its users and proponents tend to ‘maintain’ it by including and providing economic and social opportunities as incentives to those who use formal Standard English, and by excluding and discriminating against those who don’t. So, the personnel officer who reads a poorly written application letter, and discards that letter (and the applicant) without regard for whether the applicant has actual qualifications for the job (which may not require strong written English skills) is (often unconsciously) reinforcing and maintaining the formal Standard dialect by not giving greater economic opportunities to a person who can’t deploy that dialect well,” Katz said.

A job application is one way a person’s use of English is taken into account, but Katz said in general, people stereotype groups by the way they speak.

“We mark what groups we are members of by the way we talk,” he said.

Just as religious groups have split and fought over “correct” beliefs over the years, so too will the battle of what is considered “correct” language and grammar continue.

 “(Language) exists in a dynamic state of change and tension among a variety of social groups and economic and communication interests. The multiplication of outlets for public discourse and expression brought about by the Internet, and the convergence of all media to digital formats, lead to more opportunities to compete over what versions of the language will be regarded as Standard or prestigious. And that makes some people really uneasy,” Katz said.

Specifically, Katz said there are two things people get “all het up about” regarding language: “their personal bugaboos (don’t begin a sentence with because; avoid passive voice, etc.); and genuine problems with figuring out just what the writer meant.”

“It takes work and craft and patience and feedback from good readers and repeated revision to write a document that most readers will find clear in meaning and well organized. There is still plenty of good writing taking place every day. There is just so much more writing taking place in general that of course the bad writing seems to become overwhelming,” he said.