Three Little Words

I’m about to write a post that will probably make my copyeditor cringe. After all, she is a copyeditor, and it’s her job to be picky about words. As readers and writers, I’m sure many of you reading this piece will do a little cringing yourselves.

There’s been a list floating around the Internet this weekend, following, as far as I can see, a brief piece by Hugo Lindgren at the New York Times Magazine entitled “Words We Don’t Say.” Lindgren’s piece includes a list of words left by former editor Kurt Anderson; words the writers were heavily discouraged from using in the magazine under his reign, and words Lindgren agrees should probably be avoided. It includes words like “bistro,” “comfort food,” queried,” and “zeitgeist.” The comments following the original post list off dozens if not hundreds of additions, from “made-up” words to Internet speak to the flowery language writers fall into after they’ve abused their thesauri. I think we all have lists like this; a few words we hate seeing because they’re overused, or misused, or just because they bug us.

You wouldn’t think that, as a librarian, I’d be one to promote a relaxed approach to linguistic accuracy. We’re all meant to be basically English teachers, aren’t we? In fact, however, I’ve spent a much larger portion of my training on how to deal with people unfamiliar with English as a spoken or written language than I have been trained to teach people to “do it right.” In addition to some background in learning how to work with non-speakers and still be able to help them use the systems, I’m fairly well-versed in literacy training techniques for small children and have some experience in literacy training techniques for teens and adults. I promise that with enough exposure, even a language guru has to relax about prescriptive grammar, vocabulary, and writing style in order to work with the public.

And of course, for some of us, it’s our job to be picky about language. The aforementioned copyeditors, the actual English grammar teachers (and school librarians, who are often involved in teaching writing), and those of us who write professionally all have to find the balance between oversimplification that leads to repetitiveness and overuse of our thesaurus features, because otherwise we end up sounding either like first-time paper writers or utter prats. The problem comes when those job-required language attitudes follow us to public arenas, like the Internet, and we use our own language skills as a tool to discredit others’ ideas. There are few things that grate on my nerves more than a comment written in txtspeak or with complete disregard for grammar, but one of them is when I find comments further down-thread that have completely ignored the first comment’s arguments due to the writing style. The Internet is not an English class; we’re not all English literate, and the step from the way a teenager views the Internet to the way many adults now view it is a step most of us did take at one point. I willingly admit that it’s been hard to train myself not to retaliate to someone’s grammar instead of their ideas, but it’s something I decided I needed to do. I found to my dismay that I was ignoring people’s ideas because they weren’t¬†writing like I do. I couldn’t let myself be that way.

Which isn’t, of course, to say all language is fair game, even in casual spaces. There are absolutely words you can use where tone doesn’t matter, because I will call you out for using them. Words that harm people, and words that perpetuate damaging social systems, are worth having on your Cringe List. It’s my opinion, though, that other language prescriptivism, especially to the degree that you use it to discount people’s arguments entirely, doesn’t belong on much of the public Internet.

Images: “Typewriter” by Dave Rutt (rutty) on flickr; “Pen and Notebook” by Thana Thaweeksculchai (sparkieblues) on flickr.

2 replies on “Three Little Words”

Haha, as said copyeditor, I actually pretty much agree with you. Text speak and poor grammar on the Internet do bug me, but I try to remember that not everyone speaks English as their primary language, communicates well through the written word, or has had the same educational privilege I have. I do sometimes find it difficult to pick out someone’s point from a poorly-worded comment, but I usually find that things like that are an intentional mangling of the language, rather than a byproduct of any of the above factors. When someone is ESL, it’s generally pretty easy to spot, and I always appreciate when people are willing to put themselves out there even though they may not have the best handle on the language.

I do think that there are varying levels of language formality that can be expected online. I expect a different level of discourse from YouTube commenters than I do from someone commenting on an academic article. Just like I think we have an expectation that most people reading and commenting here have at least a basic understanding of some of the topics we discuss (feminism, privilege, etc.), I think in certain environments, at least an attempt at making an understandable argument is appropriate (language mastery issues aside).

Yes, yes, yes. Policing someone’s language instead of engaging with their thoughts and arguments is a cop-out. It’s so tempting, it’s an easy move to make, and many other people will applaud you for doing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. I try to engage the argument first, and then (maybe) note that next time the commenter/writer may want to use punctuation or capitalization or spell words completely, because it improves readability. But there’s a big difference between situations in which School English should be the norm (generally: not the Internet) and situations where other varieties and dialects should be accepted (the Internet, especially as an informal social space).

I also supremely dislike when people pick on features which are specific to certain dialects and varieties, for example “ax/aks” instead of “ask.” Calling those things out points, in my opinion, to underlying classism (Southern American feature) or racism (African American Vernacular English feature) or both.

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