When Language Evolves: The Thing About Grammar & Blogging

March 4th is National Grammar Day, which works out nicely for me since I have a writing blog. As I was brainstorming topics to commemorate the occasion, I decided to use that wonderful means of crowdsourcing, Facebook, to ask my friends for suggestions.

Being super-smart and intelligent people, they made some really good suggestions about “grammar peeves,” which got me thinking about how many of those errors I read each day in blog posts.

And I never bat an eyelash at them.

My career as an English teacher, though a lifetime in the making, was ultimately short-lived. It just wasn’t for me and the 5 years now separating me from it feel like a lifetime. Still, I can clearly recall hunching over students’ papers, circling every minute error and preaching the ways of Standard English.

The students, for their part, always said, “But that’s not how we speak. Why should we write like that?”

To be honest, this question gave me some pause. I knew the answer, but had a very difficult time articulating it. So I would reply that they need to be able to express themselves and communicate clearly as educated people.

This is absolutely true. The ability to communicate clearly is one of the most valuable, marketable skills you can have. I think, though, especially with blogging, that we also need to consider the way that language evolves over time because that’s important to understanding grammar and how we write.

The Rise of “Digital” English?

One of my favorite examples of the evolution of language comes from Shakespeare. Readers struggle to understand his work because of the way the language is presented. “I can’t understand this. It’s written in old English!”

Shakespeare, for the record, is written in modern English (early modern, but still modern).

Old English looks like an entirely different language. I’ll spare you the nerdy details, but the image below from Carson-Newman University shows examples of Old English (c. 450-1066 AD), Middle English (c. 1066-1450 AD), earlier Modern English (Shakespeare era), and current Modern English.

sample_4english

Those dates indicate that we’ve been using “modern English” for close to 600 years now. It would be silly to think it hasn’t evolved in that time, which is why it makes even more sense that it’s still (and will always be) evolving now.

That brings me back to writing and, more specifically, blogging. 

It’s hard to deny that the digital era has been causing a shift in our language. It might not be quite as dramatic as all of the alarmists would have us believe. It’s certainly apparent, the more digital content you read, that we are far less formal than we used to be. Our writing is more relaxed, and by extension, so is our sense of grammar. We write like we speak. While blogging might be a descendant of the expository essay, it’s a style of writing that is revered for its strength of voice and conversational tone. It’s where some degree of academic writing and some degree of creative writing collide.

This isn’t a bad thing.

According to StatisticBrain, the average attention span in 2000 (which is around the time that blogging began to gain some traction) was 12 seconds. In 2013, the average attention span was just 8 seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish, however, is 9 seconds. I love that.

Goldfish’s attention span > human attention span. 

It makes sense, then, that if something doesn’t grab our interest, we’re simply not going to stick with it. Is this a result of the digital shift and the rise of social media? It surely must play a part. We want quick information, but we also want to be entertained.

If writing feels too stiff, too formal, too much like reading a research paper, and — dare I say it? — too much like Standard English, we’re out the door. Off the page. Peace out.

Think about the content you consume. That which you like best is probably not exactly “academic” in nature — at least in terms of style. It might be educational and informative, but it’s probably more conversational. It likely bends the rules, maybe even incorporating elements of creative writing.

Whatever it is, I’m willing to bet that it takes some gambles with grammar. There are probably contractions and sentences that begin with conjunctions. In fact, there are probably several examples of things your English teacher told you to never do in your writing.

But obviously it’s content that you enjoy and understand, so it must be communicating ideas clearly, right?

You have to know the rules to break them.

This is one of the basic principles of creative writing, and it applies well to writing for [non-AP Style] digital media, too. This is the difference between creative liberties and glaring errors. Make no mistake — those still look bad. It only take a misplaced comma to destroy your meaning (see left). Believe me when I say that it’s almost always easy to tell who knows the rules and is breaking them from those who don’t have a firm grasp on the language. With the latter, ideas are convoluted, scattered, and the grammar might be so poor that you struggle to even make sense of what’s being said. It might even be written in the infamous “text-speak” — abbreviations, acronyms, and a lack of attention to capitalization and structure that give writing in the digital age a bad name.

With the former, however, you get a well-thought-out piece of writing that, while it might sometimes split infinitives or end a sentence in a preposition, still accurately conveys its intended meaning while holding reader interest. This can only come from having a strong command of the language and ability to communicate it. Sure, you’ll still have some overly-critical jerks nitpicking just to feel superior by calling out someone else’s flaws, but you’ll have far more readers like me: ones who don’t even bat an eyelash.

So the next time you sit down to blog, keep your editor tuned in (I am not, after all, suggesting that you throw all formalities to the wind), but keep your nitpicking “grammar purist” at arm’s length. Blogging is supposed to be fun. Relax and enjoy it. Language will always be evolving, but as long as you can show a command of it and still hold your readers’ attention, you’re golden.

Happy National Grammar Day!

Images: 1, 2, 3, 4

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  • Spencer Throssell

    For me, there is still a distinction between “relaxed writing” and laziness. Admittedly, I am a purist/prescriptivist at heart. At my most relaxed, I might use some slang or even [gasp] a contraction (e.g. “don’t”) instead of the full phrase (e.g. “do not”), but that’s about as wild as it gets. Blogs and emails, to me, should still subscribe to certain minimal standards of grammar and spelling.