Stuck in my ways

A while ago, in a sympathetic attempt to dampen the fire of my zealousness for grammatical exactitude, Meg recommended I look at Language Log. I’ve looked now, and I find it is indeed rife with assurances that there is no problem, grammar is alive and well, and technology does not make people stupid. Two cheers!

The language loggers care about some things more than others. One post argues that it doesn’t matter that the distinction between its and it’s is being eroded by text messaging, because that distinction is not important. Another post takes very seriously the distinction between contemptuous and contemptible. So we know where the loggers draw the line, and can take some comfort from the fact that they do indeed draw one. But nothing is going to convince me that text messaging teens, even as they scorn the difference between its and it’s, understand the difference between contemptuous and contemptible. If either of those words has ever been text messaged, I’ll eat my hat.

I don’t care much about its and it’s. (Actually I do, but let’s pretend that I don’t.) But I am pretty sure that many aspects of grammar and diction are suffering erosion, and I don’t think texting, with its demand for short forms and clichés, is helping. I’m interested and delighted by the finer points of grammar discussed at the Log, but in my everyday life I’m deeply distressed at the increased number of emails I get asking me to “respond to Professor A or myself,” or “come to dinner with B and I,” or agree that “none of us have ever done C”–and of course I could go on forever. Is all this a matter of linguistic evolution? Am I wrong to regard these errors as contemptible?

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7 thoughts on “Stuck in my ways

  1. For the record, the Language Loggers don’t agree on what’s important and what’s not — wherein I find the key to all our prescriptive urges.

    Most of us claim that we mainly (or only) care about distinctions that preserve meaning — what misunderstanding will arise if I spell it “committment,” after all? But our views of possible misunderstandings are dependent on individual grasp of language. Therefore everything can be blamed on our first-grade teachers.

  2. Well spelling is another matter. I can’t spell worth a damn. Is committment not right? For years I blamed it on having skipped grade three until I realized that my mother couldn’t spell either. Clearly it’s genetic. Anyway, I don’t care about spelling, except when it involves proper names, because this is a matter of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, a word Aretha helped me learn to spell correctly.

    But I am seriously trying to figure out where to draw my line. I know that grammar evolves, and that I should try to move with the times. It’s a good idea to accept what we might be inlined to call “errors” as innovations as long as they don’t detract from meaning. Except for one thing: we can’t always tell which of the new usages will eventually sap the richness of the language.

  3. Indeed Oona. I will never forget the day I was chastised for using ‘whilst’ in an essay. Such a useful word, and yet unusable in the world of modern grammar.

  4. I apologize for the extreme delay of my response; Yontif + Master’s Portfolio = NO TIME! (I’m keeping shomer shabbos these days so everything is crammed into six days. Yontif meant it was crammed into ten days over the course of 14.)

    I would first like to point out that I got chastised for the verb “utilize” in my Writing 50 class at Scripps. I believe the instructor found it “too pretentious”.

    I have never been one for grammar, a fact of which I am quite sure you are aware having been a reader of much of my undergraduate work.

    That being said, as much as possible I text and e-mail impeccably. To my mind, there’s not so much a shift in grammar as their is a shift away from teaching grammar. I was never taught sentence diagramming. Grammar certainly is not part of the curriculum where I teach; my students cannot even define ‘noun’, ‘verb’, and ‘adjective’.

    It is absolutely infuriating: tested not, matters not. At least in the United States, that is the legacy of NCLB. Neither grammar nor spelling count for the state open-ended writing questions. Therefore, neither grammar nor spelling are emphasized for the state open-ended writing questions.

    My students text more than they write formally for school. Under these conditions, which type of grammar do you think they experience most consistently?

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