Volume 21 Issue 19 2013-05-24
This article originally appeared in volume 1939 of The Voice (October 14, 2011).
LOL. ROFL. YMMV. If these initialisms have you scurrying for the comfort of your Strunk and White, you’re not alone. It’s popular these days to bemoan the falling standards of written language. Literacy, punctuation, and grammar have slipped into the morass of text speak and misspelled blogs. Or have they? When it comes to the written word, holding onto the good old days is a losing battle—and one that shouldn’t even be fought.
Language is a constantly evolving thing, with new words being coined all the time. In the 14th century it was words like glister, in use well before Shakespeare penned “All that glisters is not gold” in The Merchant of Venice. The modern version of the word retains its original meaning, but should we really protest when jewellery ads promise that their diamonds will glitter?
If that’s the case, then we ought to give students a failing grade for writing island instead of eyland—the original spelling, as this fascinating Sunday Times article points out.
Make no mistake, spelling matters. But only for the larger matter of consistency. The main goal of writing is to make ourselves understood, whether we’re trying to entertain someone or write a manual on how to fly a plane. Consistency enhances that understanding, and we’d be lost without it. After all, if I randomly labelled the control panel altitude, altitewd, and alt2d, how the heck would you know whether you were about to crash into a mountain? Likewise, if everyone knows that YMMV is a fast, easy way of saying your results might vary from mine, then what’s the problem with using it?
Perhaps it’s not the change itself we’re worried about, but the dizzying pace of it. For the English language, though, that’s nothing new. A special report from the National Science Foundation notes that “while Japanese has changed relatively little over 1,000 years, English evolved rapidly in just a few centuries.”
We’ve borrowed words from Latin, Norse, French, and more, and altered them to suit our needs. And if YMMV seems foreign to you, just imagine how poor Chaucer would feel if he spotted the word sweet on a Hallmark card, when his classic works had forever enshrined it as soote (or so he may have thought).
Should we rely on the experts, then? Pull out our Strunkenwhite, as it’s affectionately known, and point indignantly to the rules? No, because the “rules” are only based on accepted usage—and what’s considered acceptable depends on the way people use language at different periods in time.
Never end a sentence with a preposition? Maybe not if you’re writing in Latin, but it’s fine in English. Never split infinitives? That one’s been debunked too. Even the illustrious team of Strunk and White have fallen in esteem these days. For writers that rail against the use of passive construction, they use it in the very sentence that advises against it (as the Language Log illustrates).
And one half of that team, E.B. White, is guilty of a 21 per cent passive construction rate in his introduction to Letters of E.B. White. By comparison, studies of contemporary journals found that the highest rate of passive construction use was 13 per cent.
Perhaps the last word should go to the Chicago Manual of Style, in October 2011’s online Q & A. When a reader asks about singular vs. plural subjects, the Chicago editors end their reply with this winner: “We prefer that you make up whatever rule you like. We are going to take an aspirin and lie down.”
Editors and writers everywhere are surely thinking, “LOL.”
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).
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