Recently, a reader of my column pointed out that I had made a (common) grammatical error. I had used the term PIN number. See the error? The word “number” is redundant, since PIN stands for personal identification number. Did you spot this when you read it or did you simply read right by it because it’s common speech?
Fact is that we often use terms or turns of phrase which are not technically correct. Why? Because commonality leads to clarity. Quite honestly, although I feel a sense of responsibility to ensure that we follow the rules of grammar, I am far less concerned about it than I am with relaying reliable information clearly and concisely (certainly correct grammar plays a part in this).
Times change and language changes with it. In generations past, people took the time to craft a letter, knowing it would take days, if not weeks, for a reply to arrive. We had to be sensitive to the consequences which might arise if the meaning was not clear, since all kinds of events could be set in motion before we even got a reply.
Today, the focus is on speed and we expect immediate responses. How many times have you asked someone if they got an e-mail you sent them when it’s only been a matter of hours or even minutes since you sent it? Is it even reasonable to expect people to have the time nowadays to write in a formal style?
Larry Rosen , a psychology professor at the University of California, is currently studying the teen social network site MySpace.com and has some interesting observations to make about the communication shortcuts kids use online today. He points out that the definition of communication is to transmit a message. In different situations we transmit those messages differently.
“If these kids are spending all their time transmitting these messages this way, are they ever going to learn the ‘King’s English’? I think that comes back to the educational system. There has to be a way to stress that there is writing online and there is writing for critiques, essays, etc.,” states Rosen.
So, are we concerned about how children write today because it will have a negative impact on their lives and society? Or is this emphasis simply a result of our own conditioning? (“If it was good enough for us, why shouldn’t they have to do it too?”). Rosen feels it’s a question of modalities.
“You can’t do a fast Internet communication and use proper English letter style. It isn’t suited for it. But, you also can’t write a professional resume with ‘1337 speak’ (elite speak),” says Rosen.
I agree with Dr. Rosen’s point about different modalities being the issue. A great analogy would be the way kids approach playing games like soccer. What they play at recess has little resemblance to the formal game they learn at practice. “A lot of this is about rule-bound stuff. And, believe it or not, we are rule-bound even online. The rule happens to be that you don’t write long complete sentences (online) because you bore the snot out of them,” says Rosen.
Regardless of what side of the issue you stand on, what is clear is that this is the first generation to grow up in two worlds — one virtual and one physical — and communication is dramatically different in both. The question before us now is which one should dictate to the other, if at all.
Ducharme is editor of PCWorld.ca. Reach him at [email protected].