The Unstoppable Corruption of the English Language

“There are two extreme views about punctuation,” linguist David Crystal writes, “the first is that you dont actually need it because its perfectly possible to write down what you want to say without any punctuation marks or capital letters and people can still read it youdontevenneedspacesbetweenwordsreally.” The second is that punctuation is absolutely critical, not only for clarity but also to show other people that you’re educated.

In her New Yorker article A History of Punctuation for the Internet Age, Adrienne Raphel discusses Crystal’s take on punctuation and the internet. Like many linguists, Crystal is pretty laid back about the unstoppable “corruption” of the English language. Linguists don’t even see it as corruption; it’s just the inevitable morphing that’s innate to language.

In fact, in linguistics the word grammar doesn’t mean those pesky rules you have to learn to speak and write English correctly. Grammar, to a linguist, refers to the innate rules users of a language follow without even knowing they’re following them. This kind of grammar is not about right and wrong, but about occurring or not occurring. Thus, to a linguist, the sentence “I ain’t readin’ no frickin’ books ‘bout punctuation” is not an incorrect utterance if that’s the way English is spoken in the speaker’s dialect or group.

All that said . . . I am still a book editor.

Although I do love our ever-changing language and celebrate the style and ingenuity of individual speakers and writers, I also have a thing for the rules of English grammar (and I don’t mean the “grammar” linguists refer to). Misunderstand me correctly (as my Swedish friend likes to say): I’m not saying you should never break the rules. Heck, I broke a rule a couple of sentences back when I ended the sentence with a preposition. But, when it comes to writing in a publishable or cyber-publishable form, know the rules before you break them. That way you can break them well.

That’s when art happens.

~      ~      ~

Interested in reading more musings on grammar? Check out Grammar Matters and Confessions of a Perfectionist.





4 comments on “The Unstoppable Corruption of the English Language

  1. Mojgan Gilardi says:

    Happy Holiday to you and best Wishes. I am glad reading your Post. Love Mojgan Gilardi

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. In many ways, I agree with David Crystal. I think that are instances when a person should write the way they naturally speak—or the way a character should speak in a book. This works well when trying to portray a characters personality. However, on the flip side, I am a stickler for writing according to the rules of grammar when it’s appropriate. I must admit, though, I at times, happen to break the rules myself—in a creative way.

    • Nomi Isak, Writing Coach says:

      Thanks for your comment, Derrick. I think we’re on the same page . . . a well-informed breaking of the rules is often refreshing, both for the writer and the reader. So important to take all factors into account: Who is the character? Who is your reader? What are the rules, and how would breaking one (or more) be effective? (Breaking them because one doesn’t know them does not have the same result.) All of this, of course, refers to a published work. First drafts are for getting it all down on paper. Spelling and punctuation can be corrected on a later draft.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s