why can’t peo­ple write prop­erly any­more?

Guru Magazine - - CONTENTS - Leila Wild­smith is an English teacher in a sec­ondary school and, in her spare time, loves writ­ing and read­ing a wide va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent books. She oc­ca­sion­ally blogs about writ­ing at www.writin­gonthe­wall0612.blogs pot.co.uk and in­tensely dis­likes mispl

Why can’t kids spell? Leila Wild­smith wags her teacher’s fin­ger at the me­dia. It worries her be­cause if we don’t un­der­stand lan­guage, we don’t re­ally un­der­stand our­selves.

As an English teacher, one of my pet-hates is the use of lower case let­ters in­stead of cap­i­tals. In 30 of my pupils’ books, I will see an aver­age of 29 that are miss­ing cap­i­tal let­ters – at the start of sen­tences, for the date – even for a child’s own name. It seems as if they are not fa­mil­iar with the con­cept of cap­i­tal let­ters at all. In a world that is in­creas­ingly do­ing away with cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion, can we re­ally blame them? Is cul­ture, and specif­i­cally the me­dia, re­spon­si­ble for this in­creas­ing il­lit­er­acy? In pre­vi­ous years, the de­crease in ‘cor­rect’ (or stan­dard) spellings and gram­mar was blamed on the in­creased use of tex­ting and In­stant Mes­sag­ing. A re­laxed style of com­mu­ni­cat­ing, prompted by limited text mes­sage length (his­tor­i­cally 160 char­ac­ters) seemed to en­cour­age a more in­for­mal style of lan­guage. How­ever, to­day’s smart phones (which many of us now own) have no such mes­sage length re­stric­tion and will au­to­mat­i­cally cor­rect both spellings and gram­mar, en­sur­ing that punc­tu­a­tion marks (es­pe­cially cap­i­tal let­ters), are in the right places. Per­haps in­stead of blam­ing mo­bile phones, we should look to the pow­er­ful force of the me­dia, who seem to be do­ing away with cap­i­tal let­ters with aban­don. The Bri­tish tele­vi­sion chan­nel ITV is one such cul­prit: they have re­cently over­hauled their brand iden­tity, re­plac­ing their fa­mil­iar cap­i­talised logo with a lower case, curvy al­ter­na­tive. The chan­nel de­scribes its new logo as “a warm, bold de­sign based on a for­malised ver­sion of hu­man hand­writ­ing”. This flow­ing, curvy, new de­sign may well be based on hand­writ­ing , but as the name of a brand (and acro­nym), it ought to be cap­i­talised. ( You can read about the de­ci­sion be­hind the re­brand here). Brand­ing that tries to repli­cate hand­writ­ing, and does away with lin­guis­tic con­ven­tions, raises the in­ter­est­ing ques­tion of lan­guage and in­flu­ence. Just like the age-old ques­tion of the chicken and the egg, lin­guists have ar­gued for a long time over which is more in­flu­en­tial: lan­guage or cul­ture? The words we use may very well shape how we see the world. One fas­ci­nat­ing point of view is that the words we choose to rep­re­sent cer­tain things di­rectly af­fect our per­cep­tions. Known as ‘ Lin­guis­tic De­ter­min­ism’, it is con­sid­ered the root of the ar­gu­ment for Po­lit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness, in which lan­guage (along with at­ti­tudes, be­liefs and poli­cies), is amended to min­imise of­fence in re­la­tion to gen­der, age, race, sex­u­al­ity, be­lief etc. For ex­am­ple, mas­cu­line la­bels such as ‘fire­man’ or ‘ac­tress’ are re­placed by the gen­der neu­tral ‘fire­fighter’ and ‘ac­tor’. The in­ter­de­pen­dent re­la­tion­ship be­tween lan­guage and cul­tural thought has long been de­bated, but Lera Borododit­sky writes in her ar­ti­cle ‘Lost in Trans­la­tion’: “All this new re­search shows us that the lan­guages we speak not only re­flect or ex­press our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to ex­press. The struc­tures that ex­ist in our lan­guages pro­foundly shape how we con­struct re­al­ity… If peo­ple learn an­other lan­guage, they in­ad­ver­tently also learn a new way of look­ing at the world.” ( You can read the ar­ti­cle in full here.) Whilst lan­guage in gen­eral may shape how we con­struct re­al­ity, does the mis­use of cap­i­tals re­ally af­fect our think­ing that much? Al­though

stu­dents’ writ­ing is not tech­ni­cally ‘ cor­rect’ with­out cap­i­tal let­ters, I can still un­der­stand it. If our cul­ture is do­ing away with cap­i­tal let­ters, per­haps now is it time for us to shed them too? Face­book and Twit­ter are two fur­ther ex­am­ples of the in­ter­est­ing link be­tween cul­tural shifts and lan­guage. De­spite be­ing proper nouns, nei­ther use a cap­i­tal to rep­re­sent their name as it ap­pears in com­pany lo­gos. Again, we can ask: does this re­flect a shift in mod­ern cul­ture to omit cap­i­tals, or does the omis­sion of cap­i­tals on such pop­u­lar sites en­cour­age oth­ers to do the same? Many say that lan­guage re­ally does re­flect the changes that are oc­cur­ring in cul­ture al­ready. We see this in the ad­di­tion of new words pop­u­larised by TV pro­grammes, such as ’Amaze­balls’ and ’Bridezilla’, to on­line dic­tio­nar­ies (read about this here). Per­haps the big­ger is­sue is not the use or mis­use of stan­dard spellings and gram­mar, but the mes­sages that are con­veyed by in­ac­cu­rate use. Yes, writ­ing can still be un­der­stood with­out cap­i­tal let­ters (I could have writ­ten this en­tire ar­ti­cle with­out cap­i­tals; then again, my com­puter would make ev­ery ef­fort to cor­rect them for me), but what sub­con­scious mes­sages would I have con­veyed about my­self, or the mag­a­zine? That I wasn’t well ed­u­cated? On a deeper level, in­ac­cu­rate punc­tu­a­tion can lead us to con­struct an opin­ion, not just about a per­son’s lit­er­acy skills, but about their be­liefs and val­ues. If I didn’t use cap­i­tals, you might think me lazy, or that I didn’t care about my ar­ti­cle or the mag­a­zine. You might not think much of the edi­to­rial staff who al­lowed this lack of cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion. At worst, you might doubt the va­lid­ity of what we have to say. I doubt you would have thought me ‘cool’ or ‘for­ward-think­ing’. In such a pub­lic, pro­fes­sional set­ting as a dig­i­tal mag­a­zine, there is an ex­pec­ta­tion that the lan­guage used is for­mal. To fol­low this line of thought to one ex­treme, could we per­haps say that there is a di­rect cor­re­la­tion be­tween the lack of cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion of proper nouns and the lack of re­spect in our so­ci­ety to­day? If I do not use cor­rect gram­mar, my stu­dents may very well see me in a dif­fer­ent light. When I go to see doc­tor Jones in­stead of Doc­tor Jones when I am ill, will I still trust his or her judg­ment? If I don’t use a cap­i­tal let­ter for your name, will you still feel that I value and re­spect you? Per­haps most im­por­tantly the lan­guage we use – and specif­i­cally the lack of cap­i­tals – af­fects our thoughts about other peo­ple and our thoughts about our­selves. If I see my­self (and rep­re­sent my­self) as ’i’ and not ‘I’, then I may not ap­pre­ci­ate my own sig­nif­i­cance and im­por­tance. In­stead, I un­der­mine my own worth and en­cour­age oth­ers to do the same. Per­haps our use of cap­i­tals re­ally is of cap­i­tal im­por­tance.

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