Writing conventions (spelling, punctuation, capitalization) are meant to establish meaning and clarity. To achieve understanding in writing, scholars and amateurs once engaged in nuanced debates and filled tomes with the context of the historical sound of /j/, the spelling of “their”, and serial comma usage. Now, we post distilled and pointed memes that amount to cyberbullying, signalling a smug and concerning superiority in correctness over connection.
This indicates that not only are we missing the real purpose of writing conventions, but we are also missing an opportunity to improve our understanding of one another. It is common to attempt to establish hierarchical social dominance by correcting others in language usage. Historically, these types of interactions were limited to personal and brief interactions, often within the context of education. Now, when we find it is acceptable to police someone’s spelling of “to, too, and two,” on social media, we are publically engaging in a demonstration of superiority that predictably causes feelings of shame and alienation. This creates a barrier in communication, not accuracy.
Rapid texting illustrates the possibilities of deft and efficient communication through shorthand and parsimony that violates conventions but communicate clearly. Although the new texting conventions were vehemently and even viciously demonized, a decade later very few of us would argue that we can’t understand “what r u doing” as “What are you doing?” or can’t feel the intended mirth of an emoticon or LOL. But, even as the demands of the world insist we can and should simplify our written language and enrich the meaning we convey electronically, we cling to convention and out-dated nonsense as if it is precious. And, we turn splinters into logs to beat “sense” into others.
The issue is not simply that we are being jerks about it; it’s also that we are wrong in our assumptions that written English conventions are “correct”. Although spoken English has room to evolve and become more nuanced in meaning, written English is unnecessarily complicated and a mixed-up mash-up of curious construction. Other languages provide abundant examples of evolving and simplified written conventions, while maintaining rich meaning. English speakers have a dogmatic insistence that the labyrinth of our written language is preferable.
English is perhaps the most vastly complicated language in the world. And by complicated, I mean infinitely, impossibly, crazy-land complicated. English is comprised of a dozen main languages and more than a hundred secondary languages. It is a living language which changes rapidly from region-to-region, year-to-year, context-to-context, and style guide-to-style guide.
Reading and spelling are sound-based, cognitive activities that require a refined ability to recognize and manipulate tiny parts of speech called phonemes. In written English, phonemes are the building blocks of reading and spelling; yet, experts can’t even agree if there are 44 or 47. To add to that challenge, our written system only has 26 letters/symbols to represent those phonemes; somehow, we came up with almost 600 orthographic patterns to represent 44 (or 47) phonemes.
To fully grasp and “expertly” use English in writing is an exceedingly difficult and life-long task. Yet, so many of us not only act as if we are experts, but we act as if it was effortless to become so. We publish articles that talk about a “dozen, simple rules” for spelling; yet, there are more than a hundred “common” spelling patterns. We get smug about differentiating a few homophones; yet there are more than a thousand (and most educational publishers can’t accurately state the differences between a homophone, homograph, and homonym). We cringe at spelling mistakes; yet few ever learn that the letter A has six different sounds and that the long /a/ sound can be spelled 37 ways! We roll our eyes when someone misplaces an apostrophe; but most of us got A’s, B’s, or C’s in the 80’s and now some of us receive F’s in the 10s.
I won’t even touch the Oxford comma (or the ellipse).
The drive for economy in the evolved and evolving human brain indicates simplification whenever possible. This allows us to spend precious energy in more meaningful ways–like learning and communicating effectively. If our language was evolving properly (like French, Italian, Spanish, etc.), then we would simplify our written conventions.
It would make more sense to learn a new sound-based alphabet with 44-47 symbols than to learn hundreds of spelling patterns. It would be more efficient to learn how to get the meaning of a word from context than spelling anomalies. It would be a pig-flying-but-joyful moment if we could agree on the serial comma.
Most importantly, it would be more productive to talk about how we can create improved conventions of language than to scold those who don’t use poor written conventions well. After all, understanding is about connection, not correction
Of interest: Matthew J.X. Malady, Are You A Language Bully? If so, give it a rest.