Dave Humphrey posted on the subject of grammar the other day, arguing against the now cliche assumption that new textual media like texting, instant messaging, twitter, facebook, and blogs are creating a generation of students who are poor writers. Now, as a teacher of English Literature, I have been confronted by some horrible writing over the years, and very little of the writing that I see is of the quality that I would like it to be, but this does not imply an easy correlation between new media and poor writing.
In my opinion, the shift in writing has not been from good writing to bad writing at all, but from technically correct writing to technically incorrect writing, which are related but not identical questions. Though good writers generally do have a certain facility with the technical aspects of writing, it is certainly possible, as the schoolwork of previous generations would testify, to write correctly, by dint of rote and repetition, but still to write poorly, without style, without rhetorical force, without intellectual or emotional insight, without sensitivity to the subtleties of sound and connotation and allusion. It is entirely possible, therefore, even likely, that previous generations of students were no better writers than the students of our own day, even if they were better able to write correctly according to a certain definition that may or not be very useful in any case. I am certainly not suggesting that today’s students are better writers than their predecessors, because they may in fact be worse on the whole. I am only suggesting that it is not possible to measure writing ability solely by the degree of adherence to certain technical standards.
With this distinction in mind, I would argue that new textual media do in fact have a relationship with the ability of students to write in ways that are technically correct. It is not that these media have produced an increase in incorrectness, in colloquialism and informality, but that they have made our already colloquial and informal communication a textual and public activity rather than an oral and more or less private one. We now write to one another the things that we previously only said to one another, and this has produced a new kind of writing that tries to represent textually the kinds of colloquial talk that has never before found a significant place in formal writing. This new colloquial writing is not merely a corruption of more traditional formal modes of writing. It is a mode of writing unto itself, with its own grammars and technicalities. It is not necessarily good, of course, but that is not exactly the point. After all, the colloquial talk that is now being made textual through new media writing was not often of tremendous value either.
This textualization of our colloquial talk is significant, however, because it begins to blur the boundary between the colloquial and the formal. If there was once a strong distinction between the ways that people spoke and the ways that they wrote, a strong distinction between colloquial speech and formal writing, this distinction is now increasingly obscured as both the colloquial and the formal become a matter of textuality. After all, people now text gossip to each other and blog their lives to each other and write their school assignments or professional documents all at the same time and on the same device. These activities are just different windows in the virtual space of the same monitor. There is no longer a strong spacial or temporal separation between formal and informal communication, so it should come as no surprise that the two begin to bleed into one another.
Not only do new textual media blur the distinction between formal and informal writing, however, they also blur the distinction between textuality and other forms of media, as text becomes only one of many elements that are combined in the space of the screen in order to communicate, something to be combined with emoticons and embedded audio-visual material and hyperlinks and other such media. Though this is not exactly new, as even the earliest written texts have incorporated illustrations, what is new is that these additional media are no longer intended only to support or to enhance or to explicate the text. Instead, they are now understood as having equivalent or even greater significance than the text, where the primary medium is audio or visual, and the text is included merely as a caption or a label.
It is the blurring of these two distinctions, between the colloquial and the formal and between textuality and other media, that I think is the real source of anxiety for most educators, even if they have not yet recognized it. What they perceive as a degradation in their students’ ability to write properly is in actuality a shift in the very idea of what constitutes proper writing and even a shift in what constitutes the proper role of writing. They advocate a return to rote grammar and spelling in the schools without realizing that writing well in the context of new media may well require very different kinds of propriety altogether, very different approaches to rhetoric and persuasion, very different understandings of style and tone.
Now, let me be as clear as I can. I am very definitely not suggesting that the writing going on through new media is good writing simply because it writes in new and different ways. My experience with most new media writing is that, when it is intended still to be the primary mode of communication, it is as horrible as most writing has always been, and when it is being subordinated to other kinds of media, it is usually a good deal worse. Simple novelty of form and purpose should not at all obscure the fact that this kind of writing is mostly characterized by cliche, incoherence, and general sloppiness, but this is not merely an effect of adopting one standard of technical propriety over another. It is an effect of having few models of good writing within the newly adopted standards of technical propriety, models that teachers and schools are too fixated on grammar to provide.
Let me take emoticons as an example. I have no essential objections to emoticons, neither in themselves nor as an example of visual elements being introduced to a textual medium. My objection to emoticons is that they are usually the visual equivalent of a textual cliche. They say only very little, and they say it in only a very simplistic way, which makes them suitable for only certain kinds of writing, for those kinds of writing that are the equivalents of our colloquial speech, which often do not require anything more than simple and uncomplicated modes of expression. Rather than just objecting to all such visual elements in a text, however, I would suggest that teachers should be providing models that combine visual elements with written text more effectively, models that signal a more formal or thoughtful use of these visual elements without necessarily making recourse to traditional writing conventions.
They could, for example, show how a still primarily textual piece might include audio or video or photographs or hyperlinks to material that explicates its subject more effectively than words could alone. They could show how text might be superimposed as commentary on a video or on a series of photographs or on an electronic text in order to make a close reading of these media. They could show how text might be voiced, or combined with music, or laid over visuals in order to produce a certain stylistic or tonal quality. In short, they could address emoticons, not as a failure to understand formal grammar, but as a failure to understand the visual possibilities of which emoticons are only the most banal example.
This does not devalue the role of formal grammar. Many of our grammatical conventions exist because they help us to communicate more clearly and more easily. They are not essential, to be sure, and they can and should change over time, but that does not alter the fact that they are useful as conventions of communication. What I am suggesting is merely that the value of these conventions needs to be modeled in the context of writing that is relevant to students because it also models the ways in which their media enables them to write. I am suggesting that we need to write new media well, to encourage others to write it well, and to learn from others who are writing it well, and I am suggesting that this requires us to discover and develop and artculate and share new conventions that will enable this kind of writing, even if these new conventions take some of what they need from good old fashioned grammar.