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The Din of “Win”

April 23, 2010

It would be relatively uncontroversial to assert that people who care about the integrity of the English language probably have a tough time surfing the rather choppy waves of the Internet.  Comments sections, blogs, and message boards are choked with unedited prose, brazen meme-speak and hastily tossed-off one-liners that never flow through a mental filter of any kind, let alone one that cares about usage.  And that’s not to mention Twitter–the Morse Code of this generation–which employs as “features” services that offer to compress one’s otherwise sensible prose into abbreviations.  Just to accommodate outdated SMS technology that allows telecommunications companies to charge by the message!  The Horror!

If I may offer an explanation, I would estimate that it is not the nature of the Internet itself that is responsible for such grammatical laxity–at least, not entirely.  The medium does allow instant publication for anyone who has any remote desire to do so, and without interposing that scrutiny of an editor with a similar concern for proper diction or grammar.  But so does everyday speech.  The difference is that in the physical world, we couldn’t possibly hear all of the speech in the world from every social and intellectual stratum.  I would wager that if all of those inherent barriers to interaction were knocked down, the proportion of proper usage contained in overall speech would be roughly equivalent to that of the Internet.  Because the Internet exposes us to every voice imaginable, the overall level of quality appears poorer than our everyday experience.  But maybe that’s just because our everyday experience is biased in its own sheltered way.  I can safely assume that my experience is so insulated, and I am quite happy at that.

In a way, this question harks back to the long-running prescriptivist/descriptivist dialectic over proper usage.  The prescriptivists want to say that there is some definitive standard language that should be clung to, while descriptivists take the position that language is simply what is used by people and that the definition of language models usage, not the other way around.  Of course, like so much of the Internet that drives militant grammarians like myself (ok, semi-militant) crazy, that description is too succinct to fully explain or explore that deep tension.  Instead, I would advise, exhort, entreat, implore, and otherwise urge you with whatever words you might find convincing to read David Foster Wallace’s Authority and American Usage (entitled Tense Present when first published in Harper’s, though I read it in Consider the Lobster).  Without exaggeration, this may have been the best written work I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Here’s a brief snippet to tantalize:

An “authoritative” physics text presents the results of physicists’ observations and physicists’ theories about those observations. If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a “valid” theory in the textbook — just as, for Dr. Fries, if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto “valid” part of the language. Structural linguists like Gove and Fries are not, finally, scientists but census-takers who happen to misconstrue the importance of “observed facts.” It isn’t scientific phenomena they’re tabulating but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are — to be blunt — moronic. Try, for instance, to imagine an “authoritative” ethics textbook whose principles were based on what most people actually do.

I wonder what Wallace (or Garner, the subject of the aforementioned work) would say about Internet grammar.  I suppose that the Internet’s standards of usage (insofar as there are any “standards”) could be roughly compared to Ebonics or any other dialect that a descriptivist would defend on the grounds that it is a reflection of a culture and is perfectly capable of communicating meaning, and is therefore per se valid.  Meanwhile, prescriptivists (such as the aforementioned militant grammarians) would console themselves by disclaiming the speech as brutish and unfortunate, but in no way valid.  Though I would normally side with the descriptivists in terms of my own usage, language is not static; it does not exist in a vacuum.  Internet lingo, meme speak, or whatever you want to call it, has a certain validity to it.  It is remarkably effective at expressing snark if nothing else.  Perhaps that’s why such language appears more prevalent on the Internet, where discourse regularly involves unabashed bashing.

Either way, language will continue to evolve with the general population, and the prescriptivists are undoubtedly correct to point out that the next generation of teens will be using “Win” and “Fail” as complete sentences.  They/we do already.  That’s why the resolution proposed by Garner/Wallace is so brilliant.  In the hopes that you might actually take the time to read the essay, I won’t post any spoilers here.  That would be an epic fail.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Benhaim permalink
    April 23, 2010 10:45 am

    While I believe the meanings of words should be fixed – for example, we should not bow to the descriptivists who want “peruse” to mean “browse” when it really means “examine thoroughly” – I think it’s fine and even necessary for the rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and formatting to be messed around with in certain circumstances. Not everything everyone writes should be fit for an academic paper. Poets don’t write like that, and they’re still great writers. It all comes down to understanding your medium: it makes sense to use shorthand for texts and tweets, just as it makes sense to use shorthand when taking notes – expediency is the raison d’être for these mediums, not grammatical pulchritude. Likewise, I don’t capitalize anything when I’m using AIM or Facebook chat, and my justification for this is that I’m not writing sentences – there are just words flying back and forth. Indedd, the internet offers a lot of new mediums (“memes” might be counted among them), allowing people to play with the rules of the language in smart and funny ways (using “fail” and “win” as nouns, for example). It’s all good as long as everyone remembers not to slip a “h8” or “i can haz” into their academic papers, newspaper articles, etc.

  2. Da Arab permalink
    April 25, 2010 5:36 pm

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peruse

    Definition 1b. Win.

    Although, is it me or does definition 2 seem a bit…funny.

  3. April 30, 2010 5:51 am

    lmao sweet stuff dude.

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