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.

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