Language evolves, and so should you
Courtney Phelan | Thursday, March 17, 2016
Every student has had that one English teacher who seemed to hate everything on this planet except Shakespeare and BBC documentaries about Shakespeare. This cranky Anglophile professor likes to tell students that whatever they read is not “real literature,” that their music is not “real music” and often, that they way they speak is “wrong.”
The “CRAP” (CRanky Anglophile Professor) likes nothing better in life than critiquing other people’s grammar, syntax and spelling. Assignments, even assignments by students who genuinely care and genuinely tried, are nothing more than a blank canvas on which they create a work to rival Pollock with their beloved red pen. The CRAP, of course, thinks Jackson Pollock’s works are “not art.”
The CRAP hates all of their millennial students, and loves to go on rants about the technology-addicted and entitled millennial — of course, the CRAP ignores the fact that they raised their own millennial child by parking them in front of Sesame Street for six hours a day — and how our speaking and writing, and especially what we post on the internet, is “wrong.”
So, here’s what this ignorant, technology-addicted, entitled millennial has to say to all the big ol’ CRAPs of the world:
Language evolves, and so should you.
If you submitted some of Shakespeare’s own writing to a CRAP, they would find grammar errors. The Bard himself regularly uses who rather than whom to refer to the object of a sentence and often puts “more” in front of an adjective to make a comparative, rather than ending the word with –er. And those errors aren’t even his stylistic ones where he puts words in the wrong order, spells them wrong, uses them as an incorrect part of speech or just makes up new ones.
And it’s not just Shakespeare. The English teacher’s bible, The Norton Anthology, could be easily turned into a red-pen Pollock if you held its works to modern standards.
But of course, the CRAP would never do that. What we see as mistakes are not mistakes but words that have shifted meaning or spelling over time. Or they’re intentional, like how Jane Austen is allowed to start sentences with coordinating conjunctions but someone reading this will say that I’m a bad writer for starting my own sentences with them. Or how Mark Twain can write using horrendous misspellings, but Black or Hispanic students can’t mix in AAVE or Spanish in the classroom.
Now, I’m the first one in line, if such a line existed, to say that grammar and spelling are important. In fact, the other day, I went on a such a powerful rant about a certain grocery store’s department marker signs that a complete stranger told me it frustrated her, too, despite having never been to any of those grocery stores.
But there’s a big difference between what those signs say and what my friends tweet: I don’t know what those department markers are supposed to be telling me but I do understand what my friends are saying.
“Proper” grammar, spelling and syntax only mean that the listener understands, properly, what the speaker is trying to say. Language becomes improper once we can’t understand what is being said. Current “proper” language is considered proper because we, the English speakers of the world, have decided on one set meaning. This is why it’s mostly okay to say “I laid down yesterday,” (technically incorrect) instead of “I lay down yesterday,” (technically correct). Because mostly everyone still knows what I’m saying.
Language is like a big inside joke. If I raise my arms up and say, “It was like Godzilla!” to my roommate, she knows that what I’m talking about was completely unexpected and inappropriate. But if I did that while explaining something to you, it would be, well, Godzilla!
It’s the same way that if someone in my generation says, “Eyebrows on fleek,” I know that they have nice, well-sculpted eyebrows, not that their eyebrows are resting atop an item called a “fleek.” Just like how someone who was a teenager or twenty-something in the 1970s has a different definition of “drop out” than I do.
Even though I know what “on fleek,” means, I’m still not going to use it in an essay. The reader of my essay, a professor, likely doesn’t know what it means; thus, it’s improper. Plus, it’s Internet slang: a type of word that is created, popularized, overused and abandoned quicker than language has ever done before. Using words in an essay that were popular, then abandoned would be cray cray.
So in some ways, I understand the CRAP. Using slang, dialect expressions, misspellings or generation-wide inside jokes in professional, academic settings means that your professors won’t understand what you’re trying to communicate. But hating a whole generation of students because they interact with language? Now that’s just crap.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.