Last week, I posted a link to a brief discussion in The New Yorker about the inclusion of abbreviations (OMG), symbols (♥), and slang (muffin top) in the OED. I included it originally because I was amused at the predictable outrage.* But as I thought about it more, I began to feel that there was an important point to be made about usage and writing. Not only is the outrage based on a misunderstanding of the proper role of a dictionary, it also overlooks the importance of context for writing decisions. The dictionary doesn’t tell us what words are suitable in our writing; the inclusion of annoying usage in a dictionary has no real role to play in our usage decisions for formal writing. We have to decide what language is appropriate for our purposes and our audience, and our ability to make those decisions comes from having a sound grasp of the specific context in which we write.
This brief consideration of language outrage brings me to an post from the New York Times’ Schott’s Vocab blog by Robert Lane Greene. Drawing on his book You Are What You Speak, Greene discusses what language sticklers get wrong. I particularly liked his consideration of what he calls ‘declinism’: the view that language was better yesterday and will be worse tomorrow. His most interesting point concerns the role of mass literacy: “So a bigger proportion of Americans than ever before write sometimes, or even frequently, maybe daily…. A century ago, a nation of 310 million engaged with the written word on a daily basis was unthinkable. Now its uneven results are taken as proof by some that language skills are in decline. That is far from obvious.” Here is a review of Greene’s book, also from the New York Times. In this review, Geoffrey Nunberg provides an amusing summary of Greene’s critique of modern ‘declinism’: “We’ve passed from the thoughtful homilies of Fowler to the pithy dictums of Strunk and White to the operatic curmudgeonry of modern sticklers like Lynne Truss, whose gasps of horror at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe are a campy cover for self-congratulation.” I agree, and I love the irony of the sentiment: The written word may not be in decline, but the quality of the jeremiads is definitely slipping.
* I was also reminded about an article by Ben Yagoda that I discussed in an earlier post; Yagoda observes that student writers don’t generally use slang in their writing, preferring instead to use the vaguely elevated language that he calls ‘clunk’. The inclusion of slang in a reputable dictionary isn’t likely to cause an outcropping of informal academic writing. Novice writers may need help managing formality in their writing, but not because they are confused between their academic writing and their social media writing.