An interesting article in the Washington Post this past Sunday. Linton Weeks on the demise of the sentence as a basic structure of written communication. A passing encouraged primarily by internet styles of writing. Such as blogs. As has become typical with these things, the world dividing between alarmists who see the world going down the proverbial toilet. Which I’ve already much discussed here. We could say, in other words, hell in a hand basket. OMG. Or between the Panglossians who say, this is the best of all possible worlds.
Ok, enough of this. After a while it is too much of a trial to write obscurely. One wonders if an entire novel could be constructed in fragments. Maybe Faulkner already did it. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think this kind of debate falls easily into the kind of point/counterpoint slugfest that has come to pass for reasonable debate in the United States. The problem can’t be simplistically played out as good versus evil. The linguistically sanguine among us are surely right that language changes, and linguistic structures change, and there’s not necessarily anything that can and should be done about it. On the other hand, it does seem to me that there’s a certain loss of the word that’s going on, a loss that’s more than just the loss of the written word. There’s not a lot of love of linguistic cleverness in common culture (nothing that matches the eighteenth century’s love of wit, for instance), eloquence is descried as elitist, and anything longer than a twitter message is considered unnecessarily verbose.
As my first couple of paragraphs may suggest (although I’m not sure, my first paragraph may just pass for something people see on the net every single day), I tend to fall in to the alarmist camp. But on the other hand, this doesn’t completely get at what’s going on either. Somehow, I think our current situation is driven by the ubiquity of print and access. Young people especially now absolutely write as they speak, in fact often write instead of speaking. My kids text on their phones more often than they speak. And it is fruitless to describe this as “writing poorly” in any abstract and absolutist terms. Just as we would suspect someone of being just a bit loopy who always spoke in correctly structured complex sentences, or strove to be eloquent while asking a friends if they wanted to see the latest movie, so too writing has an everydayness now that has dissolved it’s distinctive qualities.
The history of writing, and reading, is built frankly on its rarity. It’s like gold being valuable because there is so little of it. Because not everyone could be published, being published, even writing, was something special. Even when we didn’t consider it something to be published, we would take some care to write as well as we could because, after all, it would waste paper–and my time–to do otherwise. Jotting a letter home to my folks, or taking notes in my diary, I’d treat it differently than I now treat a lot of writing. Because the paper never runs out. There’s always more room. If I get it wrong once or forget something, I can just send another email. Of course, this has been going on a long time, and since Gutenberg people have been complaining about the ways in which debased writing is debasing everything else. But I do think there’s something broadly true about the argument. WRiting is so ubiquitous, that we don’t need to care for it in the normal course of things.
This is why I suspect the argument that says all this writing in emails, blogs, and twitter messages will somehow translate automatically into better writing overall. This is like saying because I talk a lot with my friends on the phone at night, I’m going to get better at oral interpretation. They’re just two different tasks, and the one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. Someone great at oral interp. could be painfully shy and unable to utter a peep in the cafeteria at lunch time. However, I also suspect that argument that says the internet is evil. This is like saying talking to your friends is evil. Of course, not a few kids are taught this in certain class based ways. Don’t hang around those kids: they cuss too much and don’t use good grammar. Still, I think my general point holds. The internet isn’t evil, but it does give kids the illusion that their writing on the net is appropriate for every other situation.
[For more on this topic, see my more recent post “Is a Sentence Revisited.”