Readers of George Orwell’s Animal Farm will recall Snowball’s motto: “four legs good, two legs bad.” Snowball, a skilled orator and pig, uses this oversimplification to unite farm animals (four legs) against their oppressive human regime (two legs).
I have found that Snowball-style oversimplification often characterizes discussions about contemporary English grammar. Many diehard grammarians are quick to proclaim, “Standard English conventions good, texting bad.” They see texting—as well as Tweeting, Gchatting, and other forms of short communication—as the unequivocal villains of the English language. In many ways, I can understand their anxiety: as romantic valedictions, TTYL (accompanied by a string of heart and fire emojis) certainly does not seem as elegant and nuanced as “Parting is such sweet sorrow/ That I should say goodnight till it be morrow,” a line from the famous balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.*
Meanwhile, others have adopted the conflicting formula: “Texting cool and useful, Standard English irrelevant.” As someone who rarely finds cause in everyday life to deploy her knowledge of split infinitives and tricolon crescens—yet always finds cause to deploy her knowledge of texting abbrevs—I can sympathize with this point of view as well.
In any case, I do not think that the “Standard English vs. new English” debate should devolve into a debate at all. If we continue to view Standard English and modern language as opposing forces, we fail to appreciate the unique grammars that characterize each system. In other words, deciding which mode of discourse to privilege over the other is a futile business. We should, instead, focus on developing the broader skills that grammar demands from us. When you use any type of grammar—whether it’s the grammar of Shakespeare or the grammar of iMessaging—you must commit to learning the rules and executing them in the appropriate ways. Your ability to connect with any given speaker or audience always depends, at its very core, on your grammatical finesse.
As a 9th and 10th grade English teacher at FA, I continue to teach Standard English conventions because they are critical to understanding the literature that we read and the essays that we write. I find it absolutely worthwhile to honor the past and master the foundation of our language. Still, I acknowledge that language is shifting in all sorts of fun ways. I am excited that my students are producing text on their electronic devices, and I salute the rigor of learning how to communicate tone, practice concision, and develop style via text message.
My students know that emojis and abbreviations can carry real gravitas. They also know, however, that they need to learn Standard English in order to appreciate and participate in the evolution of our language. So, before we retreat to the root cellar with canned food and filtered water in preparation of the Standard English apocalypse, let us find a way to honor all forms of discourse and the complex codes that characterize them.
*While you may not think of Shakespeare in terms of emojis, someone evidently did. Follow this link to see how some of the Bard’s greatest works have been translated.