Is English Evolving or Devolving?

Ave Maria photograph, 1905Long before Messrs. Strunk and White entered the fray, humanist, scientist and liberal political theorist Herbert Spencer set out to create a handbook on good composition (for more, see this excellent Brain Pickings blog post). And in The Philosophy of Style (1852), Spencer produced a real honey! Eager to establish the importance of the fundamental principles of crafting compelling prose, he was equally determined to encourage his readers to expose themselves to superb writing and rhetoric: “He who daily hears and reads well-framed sentences,” Spencer pronounced, “will naturally more or less tend to use similar ones.”

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course, and it would be difficult to debate the wisdom of such learned counsel. I still recall querying one of my college professors about what I could do to improve my writing. He responded, “You already have a solid grasp of the mechanics. Read.” Of course he meant read really good stuff, and lots of it. I took his advice to heart and still fall asleep every night with a good book on my chest (for which my optometrist is grateful).

About face(book)!

But what happens if we stand this precept on its head? What if we discount the necessity of learning the rules of grammar and immersing ourselves in great literature? I think we’re about to find out. We no longer “make” students diagram sentences, write essays, or even develop a legible hand. Nor are we making great strides in providing the underpinnings of critical thought — and what’s the point of grammatically correct writing if you have nothing worthwhile to say? In the world of social media, all of this is likely moot.

Language is not static, it’s constantly evolving — a moving target. Therefore there is no absolute “correct” way to express a thought. I get that. The point of the exercise is to clearly communicate an idea with your intended audience. Or as Herbert Spencer expressed it with a classic Victorian flourish, “To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules [of grammar and usage] point.”

Tweeting, ca. 1852

Economy of words (and even syllables) seems to be the handmaiden of linguistic dynamics in the digital age, and we are now challenged to clearly express cogent thoughts in 140 characters or less (including punctuation, spaces, links and hashtags). This progressive simplification of communication becomes wonderfully obvious when one considers how a Victorian describes the beauty of expository economy:

“Not only in the structure of sentences, and the use of figures of speech, may economy of the recipient’s mental energy be assigned as the cause of force; but that in the choice and arrangement of the minor images, out of which some large thought is to be built up, we may trace the same condition to effect. To select from the sentiment, scene, or event described those typical elements which carry many others along with them; and so, by saying a few things but suggesting many, to abridge the description; is the secret of producing a vivid impression. … In the choice of component ideas, as in the choice of expressions, the aim must be to convey the greatest quantity of thoughts with the smallest quantity of words.”

Note the need to employ ellipsis — I think Twitter would have given Spencer fits. All I can say is OMG!

Turn, turn, turn

Writing for social media can be a good exercise, as it disciplines the digital scribe to pare away unnecessary verbiage and always consider the reader. But it can be disastrous to the creation of truly elegant, succulent prose. Further, while this practice discourages the development of a broad vocabulary and good diction, many “how-to” guides admonish writers to opt for the simplest possible word choice. I prefer to encourage the selection of the appropriate word (regardless of syllable count) for the rhythm and tone of the piece, as well as comprehension and delight of the reader. To every thing, there is a season…

Perhaps we’ve pursued this quest for minimalism to the point of diminishing return. What we haven’t done is convey the underlying principle for this intense focus on simplicity. The author’s job is not to construct prose that impresses the reader with the writer’s erudition, nor to churn out terse sentences that have been truncated to a series of “keywords” or simplified to the point of being readily understood by the lowest common denominator (unless of course that is your intended audience). The writer’s job is to convey an image; to paint a picture with words — setting the scene, establishing the tone, ensuring artful rhythm and pacing. All of these skills and more are necessary for the creation of engaging and compelling storytelling, regardless of the medium (okay, maybe not Twitter…).

Yes, language is linked to cultural trends; as our daily interactions become less formal, our written and spoken communication follows suit. I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing, only questioning what happens to our “ear” if most of the language we’re subjected to is fundamentally flawed. How can this help but lower the communication bar?

Humans have an innate communal impulse; we want to belong to a tribe. We adopt the fashions of the group we want to be associated with. We embrace its slang and jargon, its ideology and mores. Does this also apply to our writing style? I can’t help but wonder: is the lack of adequate education compounded by the deluge of bad spelling, grammar and usage constantly bombarding us on our electronic devices dumbing us down, or is it actually rendering communication more efficient? What do U think?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print & digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Photo: Ave Maria, Mrs. G.A. Barton (1905)/Pinterest

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