You Know What I Mean?

There is a consensus that the level of overall skill in terms of grammar, spelling and written composition, generally, is not what it once was. That might not be entirely true. It might be that, with the advent of easy publication of written texts, the level of skill (or lack thereof) is simply more visible now. I’d say it is part both; there is a decrease in skill and that there is more visibility — and technology is to blame for both. I am on the record that “I don’t like it,” but that’s hardly unique. Even those who are guilty of egregious liberties with written English will lament about how lax attention to proper grammar has become — in the same paragraph “then” is used where “than” should have been.

I accepted long ago that there is a different and lower standard for social media. The argument, “you know what I meant,” is valid, as is the one that claims this is part of the evolutionary nature of language. There are, however, caveats to both arguments. In the first case, we are basically speaking about function and form. For some things, function and form are inextricably linked. Language is not purely one of them, however, for it, function and form cannot be mutually exclusive, either. And, for all things, form — beauty — is important. And it is important in terms of communication, even if the form itself doesn’t actually discursively speak. Don’t believe it? Ask Edsel Ford how form and function are related.

Ironically enough, there are some exceedingly talented, artistic, creative people in the world who know exactly how important form is, but will demonize it when it comes to the art in writing. Who better to understand the importance of form, of beauty, and what that means to a thing’s underlying function? Further, these same people should be the most understanding when it comes to the exactitude of publishing (or otherwise publicizing) their work — their art — if it does not reflect their standards. But when it comes to certain art, apparently, only function is important — “you knew what I meant.” Okay, but not when applied to me and my writing. Form, to me, is at least as important, maybe more important.

From time to time I am accused of being the Facebook “grammar police.” When that happens, my challenge is pretty standard — “show me when I have done that.” They can’t, but I have done it, on rare occasion. I will slam someone for grammar only when it’s some troll slamming me or someone else for being stupid, uneducated, otherwise “dumb,” or (my personal favorite) using bad grammar when incorrectly correcting me or someone else. That’s it. However, because I am careful about the words I put out into the public forum, because I care about form and (I hope) because I am successful in producing some beauty in that form, some assumption follows that I am “judging” everyone else.

No, with the exceptions I already enumerated, I am not. But I do assume others are judging me based on everything I present — my words, my image, my everything. I am careful that I present authenticity, and that authenticity includes attention to detail in my craft — just like a musician, or a painter, or a custom car builder, or any other crafts-person or artist would. Do I cringe when I see certain uses of the language in certain places (i.e., social media)? Yes. Do I say anything? No. Do I feel compelled to? That’s a better question and the answer is that I used to want to “help” everyone be better writers. I still didn’t, wholesale, do anything — that was and is much too overwhelming a task, but that was my desire — to help. I figured everyone would want that, too. That was a long time ago. I no longer think that and I am no longer compelled to help (unsolicited, of course I’ll help under some circumstances).

Because… I do not want or need anyone’s help becoming a better musician, painter, etc., either. I’m cool. If I did need those skills, I would certainly: a) know it, and: b) find the help I need. I expect if someone needed to be a better writer, he or she would know it and get the help needed to become one. The other two reasons are much simpler. First, language evolves and this is part of the process — not all or even most of the current “new conventions” will stick, but some will and the generations behind me have as much right to fuck around with our language as we did. Second… 99 percent of the time, I know what you meant.

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Michael Althouse

Lecturer/professor of communication studies at California State University, Sacramento. www.michaelalthouse.com