Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Textual Context

While reading Facebook comments on my wall, I noticed jokes about grammar. A friend teased my boyfriend about non-standard English used in a comment. A glance at Helium and the like definitely highglight the grammarian's concerns about language being "diluted" with the use of coloquialisms.

I guess that the most shocking bit about the whole thing is my epiphany: "I don't care."

Don't get me wrong, I do believe that it is important to have a good grasp of English. Anyone who writes had better know something. If you don't, well, you better be willing to put in the time to learn it!

That said, I think there are a few behavioral shifts we need to recognize before discussing the relevance of grammar to social networking sites:

1) Spoken language is not the same as written language.
2) Technology is affecting communication.
3) In spoken language, grammar and vocubulary usuage is dependent on context.
4) Texting and social networking are equivalent to conversing, sharing experience (like playing sharades at a party consisting of acquiantances)or even waving at
someone when walking down the street (poking, throwing sheep, etc.)

If social networking sites and texting are analogous to these casual forms of communication, the only part of it that makes standard grammar important is the fact that it is textually based. Writing has traditionally been the most formal of all forms communicating in English. The advent of writing has actually hindered natural language change, stalled it to such a degree that the alterations have been minimal in the past 500 years. (Yes, Shakespeare IS Early-Modern English.) All sources for proper grammar and vocabulary come from written works. We use dictionaries, thesarus, novels, and non-fiction texts to inform us of any topic we need. As we do so, we perpetuate standard English.

Bravo and Brava! Job well done, Reader!

But suddenly, context for written communication is broadening. As writing starting to take on the same contexts as spoken language, it makes sense that written grammar will become as context-dependent as spoken language. The lesson should be when to use it in which way. Standard English, in written form does not convey emotion the way that a voice would. In order to meet this need in casual textual conversing, the language changes. Grammar, which conveys its own loaded meanings, is changed to fit the needs of the society utilizing it.

Will this change formal documents? Of that I'm not certain. I certainly hope the alteration won't be extreme, but there is bound to be some reverberation. But then, language is the verbal (and textual) expression of culture, the communication of ideas and so forth. As those things change, and culture changes, so too does language.

From my standpoint, that is inevitable and nothing to balk at. I'm excited. it will be interesting to see what affects this has on formal writing...


  1. I've been having my own thoughts on grammar as of late as well. Most people don't understand that the way we speak is not the way we write, largely because most are never told so. Foreigners usually have better English than native speakers because they're taught the proper form- we generally are not (unless you attend a higher class/private school- I was taught in a very low class school and the only reason my English is as good as it is (which isn't saying much) is because I read old literature for fun when I was young)
    Our misuse of language is especially evident in news broadcasts. You would think that their language would be better than most and always proper, but instead, they speak the way most Americans do- which is frequently wrong.

    I kind of worry about the future of our language here in the U.S. as slang, incorrect pronunciation, and grammatical structure seep into mainstream and widely used language. This first began to worry me when slogans like "where you at?" became popular.

    Of course, it doesn't bother me when in texts, used among friends, or generally when used in a casual manner (verbal and new short hand maybe?) but I would feel much better if the news broadcasters were more careful and advertisements didn't exploit bad language to draw in a younger crowd, condoning the "dumbing down" of America.

    Enough of my rant though, I agree with you and would love to talk about this more in depth sometime. :)

    (and of course, I will mention that my personal grammar is TERRIBLE most of the time and I really have to check myself when writing seriously. If I were to go back and correct everything in this reply I'm sure I'd be hanging my head in shame- so to spare myself the hurt, I won't)

  2. You forgot to include workplace email writing (hahah, I put down email instead of e-mail) and blogging. Emails between coworker, business associates, clients, etc. are sometimes being treated as a conversation (sort of like a chat, the instant messaging way) rather than a formal letter. However, in the case of a law suit, emails are being used as legal record documents.

    I have had many many many emails sent to me with run on sentences, horrible grammar (even for me), and terrible spelling. I spend a great part of my day just deciphering what the sender intended to say and end up calling them to clarify.

    Maybe the formal work documents, memo's, and letters are still written with perfect grammar (secretaries edit a lot of them), but the emails are being treated more like casual text messages even when they contain important instructions.

    Blogging is a whole other topic, I assume.

  3. I agree with Le ....chopping block :D I think the e-mail you send a friend, however, would be even more casual than one sent at work. I think e-mails are most definitely taking on a conversational tone. The issue becomes what sort of conversation would you have at work...rather than out with friends. The other trend that mirrors this that should be acknowledged in the discussion is the shift toward a more casual workplace environment. All aspects of our lives that were once expected to be more formal, are no longer so. Yet, there are lines you still don't cross. Four letter words are still taboo when on the job (in most places) and a vaneer of casual-respect is still expected. It is the relationships we have with certain people and the concepts of what form of speech is suitable to what situation which determine our evaluation of others' language abilities. As our society moves towards acceptance of casual workplace environments, conversation and e-mail will become more casual...

  4. Drea,

    You are right about the level of formality in work emails depend on the relationship. I still find it extremely annoying when someone disregard the whole grammar issue and sentence structures when it comes to work related emails. Maybe I'm just a stickler on the subject...but most email programs have built-in spell check and even grammar check, so why not use it? This message does not pertain to you personally, but please don't ignore the red and green squiggly lines, people!

    I'm lenient when it comes to common typos like "fro" instead of "for", etc. But seriously, people should know that casual conversation does not mean the flood gate is open for terrible writing and bad grammar all the time.

    /end rant

  5. I think there's a difference there, too-- grammar so poor as to hinder communication and improper grammar used to improve communication through the expression of emotion. Those are different things entirely. But often the trends of abbreviations, fragmented sentences and such carry their own meanings and are completely different from utterly disregarding grammatical rules. While spoken language does not follow the "standard rules" it's also a misnomer to think it follows no rules. It follows its own. So too will casual text forms like e-mail and IM ... but the rules are currently in the process of emerging. Before they are set in social stone we have to endure with the hazy in between (look at the original writing of the Fairy Queen and you'll see what English written grammar looked like before it was subject to rules). I think casual text is in that same phase right now.