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Elizabeth Renzetti

Elizabeth Renzetti


Don’t LOL, the kids can still spell Add to ...

As children prepare to go back to school with dread-widened eyes, what are parents most concerned about? Math scores? Healthy lunches? Or is it a full academic year of text messages from their young people that appear to have been composed in Sanskrit: “im gud cu l8r.” (I added the period, by the way, ingrained in my brain thanks to years of copy editing. There’s no teenager alive who uses punctuation in text messages.)

That teenage willfulness, that desire to hide from our middle-aged eyes and our grammatical orthodoxy, drives some parents mad. It drives pedants even madder. Should we care that the language, like all living things, is evolving into shapes we barely recognize?

For those who worry, a new tool has arrived to tighten the electronic leash on wayward offspring. ICorrect is an extension to Apple’s iMessage that will prevent a text being sent if it is grammatically incorrect or contains a misspelling. As Fast Company recently reported, “This is either a genius scheme to harness the endless ramblings of kids for purposes of education, or the most annoying thing ever.”

Or it’s yet another way for parents to worry that the world is not as it once was, and that our children are LOL-ing their way onto the breadline, where they will gather with other young folk who couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted them the c and the t.

“People have been saying English is going to hell in a handbasket for four or five hundred years,” author Ammon Shea said last year during a lecture in New York. “Either we’re in the world’s slowest handbasket or it’s not going to happen.”

Mr. Shea is the author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, which provides a useful rebuke to language Cassandras. OMG, you may wonder. Why can’t kids write properly? Well, as he points out, OMG was used as an abbreviation in 1917, in a letter written by a British admiral to Winston Churchill. For those driven bonkers by the use of “like” as a placeholder in conversation, Mr. Shea notes that “well” has long occupied a similar position without anyone getting upset about it (witness the preceding sentence).

If you’re negatively affected by nouns that become verbs, consider that nouns have been switch-hitting for centuries, and that a hundred years ago,the literati were up in arms over the idea that “contact” could ever be a verb (consider also: channel, level, screen and message.)

Spelling is similarly fluid: At one point, Dan Quayle will be happy to know, there were more than 60 ways to spell “potato.”

Try to remember that the next time you look at your teen’s texts. Or consider this majestic lyric of Beyoncé’s: “I sneezed on the beat, and the beat got sicker.” It’s a gem of language today that would have been incomprehensible 50 years ago.

“Healthy languages change,” Mr. Shea said. “Dead languages are static.”

The linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker also delivers a liberating smack on the nose to pedants and doomsayers in his recent book, The Sense of Style. “The problem with the Internet-is-making-us-illiterate theory, of course, is that bad prose has burdened readers in every era,” he writes. Television and radio were once blamed for a decline in writing skills; now, it’s texts and Twitter. But, as he argues, college students are actually writing more these days than ever before, and they do not make more mistakes than their predecessors or “sprinkle their papers with smileys.”

Instead of seeing a degradation brought about by technology, Mr. Pinker identifies a long-existing division between bad prose, which is bloated, rule-obsessed and obscure, and good prose, which is vibrant, direct and clear. And he banishes treasured notions, such as the idea you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction, to grammar’s slagheap. To deftly split an infinitive is accepted. Prepositions can be placed anywhere they want to cling to. (The rules around prepositions and other parts of speech, Mr. Pinker demonstrates, have more to do with centuries-old fashion than clarity or common sense.)

In other words, language is its own thing, shifting and transforming before our eyes, as much the possession of teenagers as the people who grew up on Strunk and White. “When it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge,” Mr. Pinker writes. “The lunatics are running the asylum.” And that’s how it should be.

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Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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