{October 12, 2008}   A WORD, PLEASE: Grammar adjusts to technology


Are texting and instant messaging destroying our language?

This is the most common question I never answer. People ask me this all the time, and I’m never quite sure what to say. I’m not a linguist. Evolution of language is not my expertise. Yet many think that because I study grammar, surely I must have a front-row seat for its demise.But if you stop and think about what it means to deteriorate, you’ll see why I’ve always found the question a little unsettling. I’ve lived in neighborhoods where the streets were falling apart. Everyone knows that if you don’t change your car’s oil and rotate its tires regularly and do other maintenance, it will fall apart. I’m quite sure that if you put milk instead of water into your coffee maker, you won’t have your coffee maker very long.

But these things all have one thing in common: They’re manufactured. They’re artificial constructs. They start out shiny and new then they begin to fall apart — slowly or quickly depending on how they’re treated.

But language was never shiny and new and perfect — fresh off the assembly line, so to speak. Grammar was not manufactured. It evolved quite naturally, on its own, probably first with club-wielding people grunting stuff even less intelligible than “LOL” and “BFF.” And they’ve never — despite what your nostalgic, sentence-diagramming mom might tell you — achieved a state of perfection.

Yes, technology is accelerating change. It’s introducing an unnatural element into an otherwise natural process. But is it unnatural enough to mess up the whole system?

As I said, I’ve always dodged the question. I point out that, if modern communications are indeed messing up our language standards, then the first finger pointed should not be aimed at some poor kid ROFLing.

It should be aimed squarely at advertisers. They tell us to “drive thru” and offer values “everyday.” Their abuses date back to the days of cigarette ads when they told us a certain brand tastes good “like a cigarette should” (properly, that “like” should have been “as.”)

In other words, my message is: “Put down the mallet and step away from your kid’s Blackberry. Let’s all just remain calm.”

Of course, that was in lieu of any real knowledge on my part. But now, after years of dancing around the question, I found a real answer — a qualified answer from the most pioneering linguist of our age. Though many know him better for his controversial politics, he is first and foremost a language expert and the guy credited with the revolutionary concept of a universal grammar. Noam Chomsky.

I found my answer, ironically, on YouTube, in a recording of an author talk Chomsky gave this spring. Asked whether texting, etc., are messing up our language, he had some interesting stuff to say.

Chomsky is deeply disturbed by technology’s effect on kids’ minds. “They have to be stimulated constantly by noise and by visual imagery,” Chomsky told the audience. “I’m sure that’s having an effect on children growing up, and I don’t think a good effect.”

But what about grammar and syntax? Is technology harming them? In a word: No. “It’s not doing anything to the language. I think that’s a mistake. The language is robust enough so it’s not going to be affected by that.”

Yes, teenagers today are creating their own “speak,” so to speak. But according to Chomsky, they always have. It’s part of language’s evolution, he said. It never damaged the syntax before, and it won’t do so now.

So, if you find this surprising, it’s OK to express that with an emphatic “OMG”!

JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You’re Right.” She may be reached at


P.S.: I’m actually re-reading Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, because I loved it! 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

et cetera
%d bloggers like this: