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Millennials catch a lot of flak — for their selfies, their avocado toast, and their unconventional spelling. I work at a university, and I can’t go a week without hearing someone complain about how the internet has corrupted English.
“Nobody cares about proofreading anymore,” one professor told me a few days ago. “Smartphones have ruined our students.”
Young people’s grammar is practically the only thing you can get faculty to agree on these days. “Oh, they can’t spell or punctuate at all,” I hear. It’s the ultimate echo chamber.
Young people’s grammar is practically the only thing you can get faculty to agree on these days.
Grammarians have published hundreds of books and op-eds declaiming the end of language as we know it. All because of one evil technology. On top of that, I’ve gotten more than one email from Grammarly reps wanting me to adopt their app for my classroom. They promise to magically remove errors from my students’ writing.
But not so fast. What if I want them to make “errors”? What if I want them to play around with language?
Language Is Always Changing
Here’s the truth: Young people aren’t breaking the rules. The rules are changing. As linguists know, language lives in a constant flux. You can’t pin it down. Even what we think of as a single language has several varieties — dialects, regionalisms, accents.
Each variety has its own standards and ways of deviating from them. People cross back and forth between language borders, sneaking words and rules across customs.
You can’t build walls between languages and their varieties any more than you can hope to build a wall between two countries. You can try, but it won’t work. As poet Robert Frost said:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
You can’t build walls around languages, and you can’t keep them from morphing. Language is like water. The Internet has dissolved all kinds of barriers over recent decades. It’s also ushering in new ways of communicating, including new modes of grammar.
Welcome to the Period
We don’t even really understand most of our silly rules. They didn’t always exist. They evolved. For starters, consider the period. This bit of punctuation has been around a while, first originating in the third century with Greek philosopher Aristophanes and becoming more common in the 15th century thanks to Italian printer and publisher Aldus Manutius. They work for me. I like periods. They’re handy.
Language lives in a constant flux. You can’t pin it down.
But let’s not fool ourselves into believing they’re timeless. Our use of periods has changed a helluva lot since their invention. Of course, they have their uses. When we’re writing an email or a report, they help us end our sentences.
But guess what? If you end a text with a period, that means you’re pissed off. It’s why so many people drop them from messages on their phones and on social media. Online, the meaning of a period changes.
Americans have lived in crisis mode for centuries when it comes to punctuation and spelling. English courses for freshmen in college began appearing in earnest around the turn of the 20th century, in part because everyone was freaking out about students’ spelling and grammar.
Since then, things have stayed pretty much the same. No better, no worse. And there’s nothing extra we can or should do about it. Let language play.
How We Learn Grammar
The average American feels entitled to correct the grammar in every tweet they see. And yet they probably have no idea how we even learn grammar. Put simply, we acquire the rules by living them. Not by learning them. Not through worksheets. Or tests. Most humans have all the grammatical knowledge they need before they even finish elementary school.
Kids know how to construct sentences.
The problem is written punctuation. Again, we don’t learn that by drills or memorizing rules. Almost every study in education, linguistics, and writing points to the same conclusion: We learn to punctuate by reading. Intuitively.
Honestly, do you really understand every single piece of logic that dictates when a sentence ends? Can you give a perfect definition of a sentence? I’ll bet you can’t. The best grammar guides in the world can’t.
If there’s one thing I’d like people to understand, it’s this: You can never teach grammar by explaining it.
The internet doesn’t cause bad grammar. Bad schooling does. Bad explanations do. And we accomplish nothing through hysterics. All our testing of students has done nothing but make things worse.
What a lot of people consider bad grammar isn’t bad at all. Just different.
Usage Matters Most
A handful of snobs have always tried to tell everyone else how to write and speak. Look back at the history of English and you’ll find hundreds of guides on how to use language “properly.” These “experts” took rules from other languages — like Latin — and forced them on English. That’s where we get the absurd warning against ending sentences with prepositions.
Most humans have all the grammatical knowledge they need before they even finish elementary school.
In Latin, it’s actually impossible to end a sentence with a preposition. English allows you to.
So do it.
Apply this idea to social media and you’ll understand what’s happening. People who communicate online, with phones, are developing their own usage conventions. Ones that make sense to them.
These conventions include simplified, alternate spellings. Abbreviations. Emojis. And innovations in punctuation.
It’s not about error in the old-school sense. Languages have always evolved, and curmudgeons have always whined about it. Roman school teachers did, just like your grandparents do now.
Different World, Different Rules
Nearly a decade ago, linguist David Crystal published a book titled Txting: The Gr8 Db8. He wrote it in response to all those doomsayers announcing the start of the apocalypse shortly after the launch of Twitter. Crystal’s book gathered mounds of evidence to show how young people, or internet users in general, understand grammar.
Many of us believe students use text-speak in their academic writing now because they don’t know any better. Yet studies by linguists have shown that most students actually do know how to switch back and forth. If they use Twitterisms, they’re doing so intentionally. Or because they’re in a hurry.
Not because they’re stupid. Or uneducated.
But even if they don’t know the rules, the fix is simple. Don’t wail and moan. Don’t drown them in worksheets. Give them books. They’ll notice the differences over time and learn to make the switch on their own.
As linguists already know, this is how people grow up in multilingual environments. They don’t sit in classrooms memorizing rules, correcting sentences, and filling out conjugation tables. They talk on the street. They watch movies. They sing along to their favorite songs. They make mistakes. Over and over again.
Language standardization is important. But not for its own sake.
Yes, standardized rules help people understand each other better. But we need to stop treating every single deviation from standard English as a sin — especially online. It’s not. Instead, we should educate everyone about the malleability of language and how grammars change situationally and over time. It’s a lot harder than being a traditionalist, but maybe it’s worth a shot.