This blog post on the New York Times opinion site offers a fairly convincing picture of increasing levels of literacy (in the USA, admittedly, but probably broadly comparable to the UK) between 1870 and the late 20th Century. It's a picture that backs up Robert Lane Greene's broader point that the people who say our language is in decline are basically just wrong.
His argument, one developed in his new book You Are What You Speak, is that the "sticklers" - those who say that we're less able to punctuate, construct "correct" grammatical structures and speak clearly - are missing the point that more and more people are actually writing than ever before. He explains: "We easily forget that this is something that farmhands and the urban poor almost never did in centuries past. They lacked the time and means even if they had the education".
It's a convincing argument in many ways and one that echoes much of what other descriptivists have said about the to hell in a handcart arguments of prescriptivists. But what's less certain is what is happening to the quality of the communication that many of us are now engaged in. Does more writing actually mean less quality?
If we include Facebook, texting and tweets as writing, we must be - as a world population - producing billions and billions of words every day, far outstripping what people wrote even ten years ago, let alone fifty or a one hundred. So, what of this sort of writing? Are we seeing a language in decline even as it grows? Greene thinks not, adding towards the end of his post, "We may be just be seeing more of language’s real-world diversity – dialect, nonstandard grammar and all – in written form, whereas a 150 years ago those same people would never write. That’s something to celebrate, not to complain about".
In saying this, Greene echoes an observation made by Henry Hitchings in The Language Wars about the Eighteenth Century prescriptivists, many of whom felt that educating the masses - making them literate - was actually a threat to the language itself. Their thinking seemed to be that more users meant worse language. But this thinking seems to demonstrate an underlying fear that democracy leads to disintegration.
Another factor to throw into this debate (and I have to be honest, I'm not quite sure what I think about this in the end) is a suggestion made by someone commenting on Greene's post that if writing is increasing, perhaps reading, of anything other than texts and tweets, might actually be falling. From this perspective, while the output is growing, there's a kind of feedback loop of broken, abbreviated English creating more and more mashed up language. The argument, I suppose, is that if you put crap in you'll get crap out.
It would be interesting to see what figures we have for how much people read compared to previous decades, and what it is they read. The to hell in a handcart brigade usually argue that we're in a near-permanent state of idiocy, which gets worse day by day. Grown-ups read Harry Potter and Twilight...English GCSE students watch Romeo and Juliet on DVD and read three passages of the original...etc. etc. but they tend to ignore the rise of reading groups, the impact of popularising programmes like the Oprah Winfrey show and even Richard & Judy's Book Club that have made a big impact on the reading habits of many thousands of people.
So, what is really happening and what should we say? Should we, as Greene does, celebrate the rise of writing, or should we bemoan the state of the writing that is now produced?