Monday, February 4, 2013

Has grammar lost its relevance?

Has grammar lost its relevance?

As an author, grammar is, of course, a very big part of what I do, as it constitutes the process of writing.  Looking outside of my little world, however, it seems to me that grammar is eroding in the wider spectrum of society.  The way I see it, there's a number of things at work in this process, and we risk much by not acknowledging the slow creep of change around us.

Not to sound like a cranky old man, but when I went to school the approach to the English language was much different than it is today.  Now, to make things clear, such a statement might sound like I'm at least two hundred years old, but, sarcasm aside, I went through grade school in the 1970's.  Not that long ago, I would think.  I went through junior high and high school in the early 1980's.  I mention this, because I think it has some relevance to the discussion.  The education I remember in a class we called 'English' was still very much focused on grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.  Yes, there was reading, and papers, but there was also a weekly vocabulary list, which doubled as a spelling list.  This was part of the curriculum straight up to high school (tenth grade).  Part of this study included grammar.  I remember doing sentence diagrams - and hating them - as well as analyzing sentences to identify nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, subject-verb agreement, etc.  I won't hesitate to admit this was a struggle for me, but I felt that when I was done with it, I knew how to write a well-structured sentence.

In today's world of education, much of this rote drilling has gone away.  I've seen it first hand with my own kids, and I know they're not some strange exception to the learning experience.  The school district in which we live is also considered very good, and, just to be clear, overall I'm satisfied with the education that's been conducted in the schools.  The problem, I believe, is systemic to the greater education system.  Vocabulary and spelling seem to fall by the wayside at the end of grade school, and sentence diagrams are not discussed.  I took it upon myself to teach my kids what I knew of grammar after a little experiment that unfortunately proved my suspicions.  I pulled out some Madlibs one night and figured to have some fun, while sneaking in a lesson. Not only my kids, but their friends as well, had no idea of grammar beyond nouns and verbs.  Adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, were all Greek to them.

What happened?  Back in the 1980's schoolwork was done by hand.  Computers were very expensive, word processing programs often ran on dedicated machines (I first did word processing on a Lanier desktop), and those initial programs for the most part lacked spell and grammar check.  In today's world computers are omnipresent, and a great deal of work is done electronically.  It would seem that computers would catch a student's grammatical errors, but that makes several assumptions.  First, the grammar check needs to be turned on.  Second, the user needs to understand what all those wiggly lines under their sentences mean.  Third, if the student does open the grammar check to review the written text, will the student understand what the grammar checking is referencing, when the student hasn't been taught grammar in the first place?

To me, this is the same insidious process debated when I was school, when the concern revolved around calculators.  The argument was that calculators would take the place of individual understanding, so that people would be trained to push buttons rather than think.  An over reaction?  I don't think so.  Today, several retail chains have adopted the practice of displaying charts to explain the savings on sales percentages, a rudimentary calculation.  Still an over reaction?  Here's an experiment: next time there's an opportunity to make a cash purchase, see if the person behind the register knows how to make change.  

Is it a matter of an evolving social state?  That's something that remains to be seen.  I think there is a change at work; it would be silly not to think so.  The pace of communication has increased by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. We went from having actual conversations to one sided communication, realized in texts, facebook updates, tweets, and scrolling news feeds on cable news channels.  In previous times a thought was expressed in as much space as it required.  Today, outside constraints form the rule.  Character limits, working with tiny phone keyboards, and the commingled emergence of a pseudo-language consisting of acronyms and butchered words have all but eliminated the 'sentence' from modern communication.

The latest Blackberry OS/devices not only have predictive software for words typed on small keyboards, but predictive software to complete entire sentences.  If that trend continues outside of Blackberry to other devices - as it most certainly will, given competitive trends - the micro-communications (text, tweets, etc.) we exchange in the future might not even be of our making.  Our devices will be talking in our stead, exchanging predictive sentence forms with each other.  It's an unsettling prospect, considering that the written word of an individual can be as unique in its expression as an individual's spoken word.  Consider this: if our comments and communications are homogenized, is there any 'communicating' left in communication, or will we be reduced to the likeness of fax machines?

So, what's at risk?  For most people, any concern would most likely be dismissed as an alarmist over-reaction.  I would say we shouldn't be so fast to dismiss the ramifications of this change.  Look at memos in the workplace, notices in businesses and restaurants, even some newspaper articles.  Often such things are riddled with spelling and grammar errors, some of them to the point of being unintelligible.  When I entered the publishing world, I read post after post of editorial standards advising authors to be wary of basic grammar and spelling.  I used to think this was sarcasm, but I've come to realize it's just another facet of the problem.  Theirs vs. there's?  Too, to, two?  You're vs. your?  Its vs. it's?  When the basic structure of a language is not embraced, the language itself faces the dilemma of losing relevance.  What's the use of traffic laws, if people are allowed to disregard them?

The greatest legacy of a civilization is the body of literature it leaves behind.  Cultural values of a people can be expressed in art and sculpture, in the sound of their music, but only the written word allows the subtleties and depth of a culture's values and ideals to continue through time.  Without passing along the knowledge to use the written word properly, the ability of a society to maintain its ideological and cultural identity begins to erode.  We have a legacy to impart to the future, we just need to remember that we will be responsible for effectively conveying that legacy, something we won't be able to do if we let our language fall by the wayside.

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