“Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power,” said author Joan Didion. From the time a child steps in the front door of school to the time they graduate college, proper grammar is stressed. Children who have trouble spelling are automatically assumed to be less intelligent. A strict set of grammar rules are given piece by piece and then enforced strictly. From an outside eye, it looks as if young students are shirking the very idea of grammar as soon as they escape school. However, while it may seem like grammar and English are being degraded more and more with every day, our expression is simply evolving and expanding – a change that begins with the younger generation.
I was browsing an Internet forum and found a thread where a kid was criticizing a book I’d read: Feed by M.T. Anderson. The strange thing about the review was that he seemed to be attacking the very motif that made the book interesting: its language, or rather, the lack of it. The words and language in Feed are vulgar and simple, since its whole premise is that the teenage characters don’t need to have good vocabularies since they have dictionaries implanted in their heads. It seemed really strange to me that the book was criticized for its creative application of English, until I realized that its creativity was actually the cause for the negative review.
I began to see this seemingly unbreakable clinging to grammar almost everywhere. It was in fiction-writing books I owned: “NEVER use adverbs, NEVER use the passive voice, and NEVER use the word pretty.” What about when the passive voice works better in a particular scene? If I’m writing from a less verbose character’s point of view, wouldn’t using the word pretty be acceptable?
Of course, online, adverb misuse and the passive voice are just the beginning. The varying shades of grammar usage on any given digital platform are too many to count – enough to make a traditional English teacher scream in agony. Younger generations have a penchant for throwing grammar out the window – or is that just what it looks like from the outside?
The comma splice is a hot topic of students’ works. However, what may look like a misunderstanding of grammar is often quite the opposite. Comma splices tend to end up in locations where, when a sentence is read aloud, there would be a natural pause. This isn’t a strange way of thinking – it’s how poetry is read also. Pauses only occur at commas or periods, not at the end of a line. In England, the period is called the “full stop.” The truth is, however, that in everyday speech, not every sentence comes to a full stop. Sentences sometimes drift off into nothing, or even pause, as if waiting for more.
Punctuation isn’t the only thing that is used loosely in the digital age, though. Capitalization is often either not used at all, or used on every single letter. While sometimes this is a simple case of new-user excitement, it can also be thought of in the same way that “full stops” can. The range of motion in the human voice is almost infinite, but when a spoken sentence is written with correct grammar, it loses that expression.
Every sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a punctuation mark of some sort. This is what we are taught is correct, but perhaps not for much longer. As we become more accustomed to typing on online platforms, our grammar style comes in waves. In the beginning, we may ignore all rules of grammar but then, after a while, we may stick to them strictly.
After those two waves pass, though, things can get really interesting. By loosening the rules of grammar, we have begun to figure out how to better translate the human voice’s raw emotion into text. When “No,” “NO,” “nO,” and “no” are read internally, they have different qualities. “No” might seem finite, while “nO” seems frantic. By adding punctuation, the possibilities expand even further with the open-endedness of “NO” contrasting the conversation-ending “NO.”
“So-and-so’s book would never be published today,” isn’t an uncommon comment when discussing classic literature, which often tends to be looser in its use of English than modern literature. But how would that book be if it conformed strictly to grammar rules? Would Catcher in the Rye still have the off-handed manner that’s so true to Holden? Would Wuthering Heights still read as if it was written in a daze? If grammar continues to be enforced strictly, creative possibilities may be destroyed, and the world may never have the opportunity to enjoy a novel that reads with the same depth and complexity as the human voice.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.