Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Are we cheapening our language?

Is the use of texting, tweeting, e-mailing, and blogging ruining the English language? The question is a recurring one in the media, and just recently I saw an editorial in the magazine N+1 posing the question: does writing on the internet and other electronic media cheapen our language?

The answer is yes, but in two senses: the good sense (writing is more available to all, with publication more democratic) and the bad (ease leads to carelessness and confusion). Bloggers, says the editorial, write off the top of their head and in the conversational rush produce sloppy prose. There is no time for revision.

If all online writing takes on the quality of blogs, it is said, to write well--indeed, to write anything--will seem "pretentious, elitist, and old-fashioned."

Well, there's nothing like hyperbole to catch the reader's attention. The blogs I read do not seem especially careless, rushed, unedited nor do I see a connection between blogging and texting, tweeting, etc., though my exposure to these last two has been purposely minimal.

I confess that my posts on this blog are done under a self-imposed deadline and are less carefully revised than other writing I do for publication, but I naturally revise and edit everything, keeping in mind my admiration for interesting, original sentences, not to mention the demands I place on my writing students.

The 40-character limit of tweets limits itself to the trite and superfluous, at times, as when people chat about what they had for lunch (one respondent asking, why eat anything if you don't write about it?). Yet maybe the next Oscar Wilde, the next Dorothy Parker, masters of epigrammatic wit, are waiting to be born on Twitter. Who knows.

What concerns me is that young people reading and writing only condensed, abbreviated slangy chit-chat will assume that other forms of writing, including business e-mails and blogs, should be equally informal and so all their writing will take on the style approximating that of the late David Foster Wallace, which I would describe as controlled verbal chaos.

Writers often overlook the central role of reading as they shape sentences and choose words. And they forget that there is no writing without rewriting. My advice: read good stuff to counterbalance the tweets and always produce carefully revised prose when you write, no matter who your audience is, especially if your work is "out there" for the world to see.

Good writing will never be pretentious, elitist, or old-fashioned.

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