“The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.”
“Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates."
Unless you’ve read the prologue to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century or Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered by Harvey A. Daniels, you’ll be surprised to learn that the quotes above date back to 1785, 1889 and 1961 respectively.
As in the earlier centuries, nowadays we are worrying about the decline of the English language. The 21st century epidemic appears more alarming than ever before. Today’s electronic devices help us to spell, whilst our own spelling muscles waste away. Restricted character count on Twitter and short attention spans of social media consumption in general have changed written communication dramatically, reducing paragraphs to bullet points and sentences to mere headlines. We can just about taste the flavour of what is being fed to us, but there is no substance left in that pot. The new generation of media broadcasters with blogs, Twitter and Instagram accounts reason that the relevance of their content, the urgency of their news and the appeal of their photos make rudimentary orthographic values archaic and redundant. Will the vitality of the language, triumphing over concerns of the previous centuries, pull through once again?
Whilst Alain de Botton, Malcolm Gladwell, Tim Harford and Gillian Tett (to name but a few virtuosos) are giving me hope that I won’t ever starve for a good read, I still get frequent indigestion from scanning through Facebook posts, noting captions underneath Instagram photos and skimming through some lifestyle blogs I follow. Some grammatical disasters I come across are so baffling, it is hard to believe their authors weren’t pulling pranks. A friend recently referred me to a blog post about “alot” and I laughed at the incredulity of it, until I came across that ‘creature’ in real life. It seems that some modern broadcasters are not just lazy about punctuation and ignorant about grammar, but they are consistently spending more time on editing a photo ("Valencia" or “Mayfair"?) then on checking the wording of their posts. What’s so disappointing is that their readers and followers are seemingly happy to lap up “its my new recipe” or “I could of made it myself” and swallow any number of typos, whilst admiring creativity, fashion sense or any other inspirational morsel chucked at them by their idol.
As a conscientious user of the language, I do not get upset about our everyday vocabulary growing to include new, occasionally unappetising words, which reflect the dynamics of the English language. However unpalatable the latest additions to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary are, I can live with and even use BYOD and bitcoin, abbreviate an “invitation" to an “invite” and put together “binge” and “watch”, as if the expression was there years before Netflix. I welcome experimenting with new ingredients, as long as we still pay homage to the fundamental structure and a sense of style.
In the end, grammar, punctuation and spelling send powerful signals about their authors. K. Wiens wrote an article “I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why” for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network in July 2012. He said that he rejects job applications, filled with errors, because “if it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it’s, then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.” In private setting, online dating profiles, full of spelling mistakes, are more off-putting than acne. I also find that if I receive a grammatically sloppy email, I feel a lack of respect. Everyone makes a typo now and again, especially with the treacherous auto-correct function at play, but one thing is certain: amidst the flood of hasty posts and publications, well-written and punctuated, grammatically correct prose stands out in style. "To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures."