Blog Post

Reflections on Twitter Feeds: Grammar Matters (in several senses of the word "Matter")

Mitch Nobis (@mitchnobis) posted a tweet about the changes in the music "style guide" that was published in--of all things--The Wall Street Journal ("Grammar Rocks: These New Punctuation Rules Are fo' Realz"). I noted this tweet on the heels of another one about a new song and album by Lonely Island, "Semicolon" (note that this link takes you to the one where Lonely Island is assisted by Alanis Morissette.)

I found both tweets amusing, clicked the WSJ  link, read the article and then thought I'd post a comment. I have to confess my graduate thesis was on a grammar rule (it's OK, you can laugh). When I clicked on the comments I found a vitriolic exchange between two individuals and this exchange left me with a simple conclusion: both were right in their assertions about the English language, yet neither could see through their anger to come to this realization.

On the one side was a more or less grammar conservative (as I used to refer to one of my colleagues, a "Grammar Nazi.") This commenter was lamenting the lack of effective communication in rap. The comment's ratcheted up to saying: "Language changes over time, but this is not a change, like moving from one house to another house, it is the bombing and destruction of the house."

On the other side was a more "radical" grammarian who noted: "Notice that "foot" and "feet" are irrationally spelled (coming from Proto-Germanic forms /fotus/ and /fotiz/ which eventually had their last syllables drop off, but only after the plural /o/ was umlauted)."  And these comments grew to charges of racism against the first commenter.

I wanted to wade into this verbal fight and push each to the opposite corner to remind them both of how important "clean fighting" is today. But I chickened out and thought I'd use this issue as my blog today.

And indeed, both are correct in their assertions about English. The first commenter is absolutely right that effective communication is critical--perhaps even more so today than ever. Given the rate of change, given the grasping at information, given the 24/7 cycle we live in, everything written should aspire to the five C's: clarity, completeness, conciseness, correctness, and concreteness (sorry to lapse back to my English-teacher-self). Certainly, from this writer's point of view, this style guide, in general, and rap music, specifically, failed the "correctness" test ( as well as clarity and conciseness).

However, the responder was also correct: changes have happened in English that by today's "standards" seem arbitrary and capricious at best. He alluded to the Germanic history of English and the umlaut (I had a friend in grad school who presented on "Umlauts from Hell," how heavy metal bands communicated this Germanic ethos with the use of umlauts in the bands' names.) How can we say that "sing, sang, sung" and "ring, rang, rung" are certainly "correct," while "bring, brang, brung" is an utter "barbarism" (yes--early dictionaries would often flag such uses as "barbaric.")

The fault does not lie in the stars but lies in the democratic nature of American English. We do not have the "received" English of our motherland. We do not have the "academy" which polices the use of "hamburger" in billboards and adjudicates fines. We are democratic and the "majority" rules. And I love it!

American English changes and the rate of change is increasing, based primarily on the very issues the first commenter used to argue for a "conservative" approach. Let me give a quick example based on written communication. "Standard usage" (Strunk and White and the hundreds of other handbooks) requires that a comma (,) appear after an introductory adverbial clause (e.g. When the sun comes out later today, I will loath that I carried my umbrella.)

However, in the mid to late 1980s and into the early 1990s--at the first run of personal computers--commas were expensive in word processing and printing. I had a student in this time period tell me that a single comma cost 25 cents on a page because TWO bits of memory were used (keep in mind--this was before my first 9600KB modem was set up). Two BITS were used because typing has "programmed us" to hit the comma key and the space bar--both took a bit each. Thus, I stated tracking commas and found that commas were DISAPPEARING after short adverbial phrases at the beginning of a sentence. I found this particularly interesting when I found comma-less articles in College Composition and Communication!

But by the mid-1990s when we started having 1 M "floppies" and we had more memory and processors were beginning to speed up, commas began to return! Now commas are in all sorts of places (particularly when a compound verb is joined by "but") that are pose questions for me.

On other quick example: pull a handbook from your bookshelf and look up the past tense of the verb "dive." What did you find? Older handbooks embrace the Germanic umlaut of "dove." However, new handbooks and dictionaries have "regularized" "dive" to "dived." We are--as another tweet I read today--making history as we are living it. And I suspect that is why the commenters were so irate: change happens--that is the only constant in the 21st century!

Please feel free to engage in a conversation about English: where it is going, where it has come from, and can we really "mandate" changes in our every day language. . .



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