10 September 2015

The Decline of Grammar? WTF!

A couple of days ago, my friend Rolf and his out-of-town brother Dan and I decided to have brunch together. I was reading the printed version of The Decline of Grammar from PBS web at the café before the brothers showed up. Dan asked me what I was reading. After I showed him my paper, he took out a pen and wrote right next to the title: “WTF!”

I laughed out loud but did not expect Dan would joke like this because he does not seem to be your typical young hipster uttering urban slang over brunch. He is a professor at a prestigious university in his forties, and for Christ’s sake, he has a MFA from Columbia University! WTF!

Later that day when I got home, I looked up Urbandictionary.com to find out other words related to “wtf”: rofl lmao wth ftw omfg stfu sex stupid noob … Then I got anxious since other than “sex” and “stupid” I did not recognize the rest on that list. Am I really living in the rotten age of grammar and language? Or am I far out of touch with reality? WTF is going on here? I asked myself.

Time to do some research and soul searching. The Youtube video, Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar, tells me that there are two major academic camps on English grammar: the prescriptivism vs. the descriptivism. According to this video, the prescriptivism “preserves social hierarchies” and “suggests a convention or manners”, while descriptivism suggests “every variety is grammatically, morphologically, and phonologically structured”, or in other words, correct.

This has shed some light to me. I know I am living in the age of communications revolution: emails, cell phone texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram … all have been contributing to the ever-increasing phrase and acronym based sound bytes, increments of meaning and expression shrinking everyday. I guess (since I do not have a Twitter account yet) when you only have 140 characters to use for your tweet, wtf, lol, wfh, pto or tgif … comes handy and gets the job done. A linguist associated with descriptivism would approve the usage as long as you do not use those expressions in your research paper, or your resume, or that essay you plan to publish in the Op-Ed Columns of the New York Times.

So I do not think I am living in the rotten age of grammar. Language evolves whether we like it or not. As stated in The Decline of Grammar, “we are not bound to use the language just as it was used a hundred years ago, ” and “our linguistic values… are by no means absolute or immutable. They must change, as they have already changed, along with the social composition of the English-speaking world.”

Another great example of this change is shown in the language section of the Answer Issue of Time titled: When Did Everything Become ‘Epic’? Here are some samples from the spiral diagram in Time’s hardcopy issue:


Special 1225 Gay 1375 Golden 1400 Jolly 1548 Excellent 1604 Tight 1607 Fabulous 1609

Nuts 1617 Prime 1637 Spanking 1666 Immense 1762 Ripping 1776 Dandy 1794 Swell 1810

Slick 1833 Boss 1836 Stunning 1849 Spiffy 1853 Nifty 1865 All right 1869 Stellar 1883 Jimdandy 1885

Smooth 1893 Fly 1896 Smashing 1911 Wicked 1920 Dynamite 1926 Ace 1929 Cool 1933

Solid 1935 Groovy 1937 Neato 1951 Badass 1955 Smoking 1964 Radical 1964 Bomb 1973 Rad 1976

Awesome 1980 Epic 1983

However, I have to admit, before all of these studies and researches, I was a notorious prescriptivist. I judged harshly and rigidly my co-workers’ writing in their emails; I subscribed to Grammarly on Facebook and liked its message such as “I am allergic to grammatical errors”; I shook my head disgustingly when I heard that rewards were given to the best cell phone novel in Japan. I had my reasons. Look at this sentence:

It’s time to eat grandma.

Imagine what kind of world we would be living without proper punctuation! But now I understand people including me make mistakes. Mistakes do not signify the decline of grammar or language.

My original and less catchy title to this post is: “Decline of Grammar: from Shakespeare to Eminem”. Shakespeare’s language consists of not only the poetic-sounding vocabulary and intricate phrasing, but also the plain and simple tongue of the time. His writing includes language spoken by all, from larger-than-life characters to jesters, clowns, beggars and prostitutes. He would create “a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got.” So now when I hear Eminem rap in his song Renegade: “I’m a poet to some, a regular modern day Shakespeare”, I have to say, well, WTF, he sure is.


The Grammar Lab. “Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar.” Youtube. YouTube, LLC, 29 July 2012. Web. 21 September 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugf_yCelFE4

Nunberg, Geoffrey. “The Decline of Grammar.” The Atlantic Monthly. December 1983. Rpt. by PBS. Web. 5 Sept. 2014. http://www.pbs.org/speak/speech/correct/decline/

When Did Everything Become ‘Epic’. Time. September 8-15, 2014. Print.

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Posted September 10, 2015 by Laura Zhang in category "Personal Commentary

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