Thursday, December 15, 2011

Unfriended for grammar fails

There's a good article here on ZDNet by Charlie Osborne about grammar, spelling and punctuation on social networking sites. She takes a look at how technology has been blamed for grammar failures, but how the fault might lie with how we teach English in schools.

While it's clearly important to teach grammar as part of secondary English, the problem lies in how we teach it. If it's just a dry naming of parts with little sense of what the effects of grammar choices are then we're probably doomed to the nightmare back to the future scenario that Simon Heffer (and his chum, Michael Gove) longs for.

One problem is that many of the gripes about grammar that are often brought up are either matters of taste, rather than "rules" which affect how we actually understand one another, so one person's error is another person's normal usage. That's not to excuse basic errors like you're/your, their/there (which bug me, even though I'm what Heffer would probably call a trendy-lefty linguist).

One explanation for such errors is that in a time of much higher basic literacy rates than ever before, we're seeing more and more people using forms of communication like Facebook, Twitter and texting than we would ever have known before, and while basic literacy is higher, not everyone is as highly educated as those who wrote for public consumption in the past.

So while the footballer, Joey Barton tweets about his interest in Noam Chomsky and Euroscepticism to about one million followers, you'd have needed decades of formal education and a university degree to communicate with that many people in 1870 or 1950.

Not surprising really, because a footballer like Joey Barton generally talks with an educated right foot (and in Barton's case, the occasional headbutt) rather than an educated lexicon. And as a follower of Barton on Twitter and admirer of his genuine interest in exploring the world of knowledge - not something footballers are well known for - I don't mean to criticise or patronise him in any way, but when you look at the history of language, working class men like Barton have rarely had such a public platform for their words.

It's an argument that also links with Joshua Foer's piece in the New York Times in which he looks at how our reading habits have changed from "intensive" knowledge of a limited range of books to "extensive" reading of many texts, including books, newspapers and text messages. And as more and more people write and text in English around the world, perhaps the centrifugal force that has previously bound English usage to the core values of Standard English begins to lose its power, with more and more mis-spellings and grammatical errors circulating, growing in influence and perhaps changing the language beyond recognition. A doomsday scenario for Standard English, or the natural evolution of a growing language?


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