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.




An Editor Tries to Text

“Send me a text.”

Those words send a shudder through my body. Not because I think texting creates two-dimensional human beings (though I am concerned about the next generation’s ability to connect face to face) and not because the posture assumed by a texter is harrowing for the neck (again, I worry about the cervical vertebrae of today’s young people), but because I’m an editor.

I know some people find texting to be a convenient and, as needed, surreptitious shortcut to communication. But when I text—and I try to make it a very rare event, indeed—there is nothing convenient, surreptitious, nor shortcut-ish about it.  I’m simply incapable of the very conventions that make texting speedy. I cannot, for the life of me, forgo capital letters at the beginnings of sentences and proper nouns. Nor am I able to leave out a called-for comma. And periods? Forget it. I will not write a sentence that has no period at the end. How will anyone ever know I’ve ended my thought?

To make matters worse, I don’t have a smart phone. Yes, you read that sentence correctly, and it did have a period at the end. It’s true; I do not have a smart phone. I have a dumb phone. And I like my dumb phone (which used to be considered very smart, running on satellite towers and all). Thus I do not have a smart keyboard on my phone. I have a dumb keyboard (which used to be considered quite clever, one key pad being able to handle both numbers and letters; brilliant!). But texting on this dumb key pad . . . Not fun. Some of you may not even remember how that’s done, all you smart phone owners. You press the 4 three times to get an “I,” the 7 four times to get an “s,” the 3 two times to get an “e” . . . You get the picture. An editor standing head lowered (neck bent in an achingly awkward position) for a full fifteen minutes right in the middle of a busy supermarket, inserting all the periods from “special mode,” to let my friend know I’m running late.

A phone call would have been faster. (I don’t mind dropping capital letters when I speak.)

[See my follow-up post, “An Editor Gets a Smart Phone“]