Here’s a question that made me laugh: “Is Texting Killing the English Language?”
That was the headline from a 2013 TIME story, which examined the fears that texting (and all its casual shorthand) is doing irreparable damage to us all. Imagine it — English, a language born in the mid 5th to 7th centuries, survives thousands of years of war and change until it’s finally slayed by some LOLZ.
Today, we can at least agree: English carries on. And yet, we continue to fear that new things are going to kill the beloved things that came before them. For a while there, podcasting was going to kill the radio, and video chat was going to kill in-person interaction. And yet here we all are, reveling in face-to-face meetings and streaming NPR on the way home.
Want to see why these kinds of fears are so foolish — and why they miss a great opportunity to stretch our brains in new directions?
Writing is actually a perfect way to evaluate the issue. So let’s take the question seriously for a moment: Is texting — or tweeting, or DM’ing, or any new form of writing — a true threat to our language in general?
That depends on another question: Is it possible to write “in general”?
What does "writing in general" mean? Oh, you know — it's general writing. Just normal writing that is general. General writing for a general audience, generally speaking. You understand, right?
In a wonderful essay published a few years ago, Miami University English professor Elizabeth Wardle pushes back on the belief that any new form of writing hurts our broader language. And she starts by asking if there’s really even one universal form of a language.
If texting is harming a more general form of English — that is to say, writing in general — then what exactly is “writing in general”? She writes:
Her argument: It is not possible, because there is no writing in general. There is only “writing in particular.”
Then she goes in for the kill:
Texting or tweeting (or whatever!) is designed for a specific purpose, where it serves a useful role. “Context, audience, purpose, medium, history, and values of the community all impact what writing is and needs to be in each situation,” she writes.
Truly, I could just keep quoting from this essay all day. Please read the whole thing.
As a journalist myself — which is to say, a supposed keeper of our “general” mode of communication — I can tell you that no modern forms of communication have destroyed my writing, or any of my colleagues’. If anything, a more relaxed writing culture made it OK for the media to write a little bit more casually, in ways that are more accessible and enjoyable for readers. I’d call that an improvement, not a catastrophe.
Of course, there are elements of texting that I would never print in a magazine (we don’t run many emojis in Entrepreneur, for example). That’s because, intuitively — based on the venue, the subject matter, and the audience — there are appropriate ways to text and appropriate ways to write an article. It is obvious to the writer which is which.
Wardle leaves us with a roadmap for reconciling these different mediums: "All of us, then, should give ourselves time to anticipate new writing situations, look at examples, find out what people’s values and expectations are in them, and give ourselves time to practice and learn what we need to know in order to write successfully in that new situation."
The same is true of new technologies, or any other new changes we face. It’s time we embraced that every new format is an addition, not a death knell to what came before. A new platform, far from signifying loss, is actually an opportunity to stretch our brains in new directions. But we be willing to do some stretching ourselves.
One hundred years ago, we had a similar argument about language. But back then, here’s how it looked:
That’s from the Nashua Telegraph in 1907. Children were being urged to put aside novels, along with all their creative ideas, and instead go back to “standard literature.” You know — writing in general.
Today, we text. We tweet. We TikTok. Writing in general is dead. Long live writing in particular.
By the way, huge thanks to a listener of my podcast named James for sending me that Wardle essay. Have something you think I’d like? Please get in touch!
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Cover photo: aluxum / Getty Images