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The Next Generation

On Monday I began my first course for my copyediting certificate. Turns out I know a lot less than I thought I did! I won't write a laundry list of all the mistakes I've been making, but suffice to say that I feel like symbolically burning everything I've published before this week.

From my experience with the first lesson, the class will take approximately eight to ten hours of my time each week. At least five will go into the readings and assignments, and then I spend the others on the discussion boards. There's a participation requirement for credit, but I will definitely end up going over the minimum because new issues and questions are constantly popping up that I can't answer.

The prompt for this week's discussion was a general question about our thoughts on what defines "proper" English. Who should make the rules? Are there any appropriate times to break them? That sort of thing. I argued that language should be used to communicate, and sometimes a "wrong" form does so more clearly than the "right" way to do it. Plus, in fiction, taking certain liberties adds another layer of meaning, makes dialogue more realistic, etc. etc. There wasn't much arguing to do, though, because almost everyone agreed with me.

However, the inevitable comment eventually popped up:

I'm afraid we will lose something beautiful if all literature is written in the vernacular. Will Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon or William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury have the same effect on a generation that cannot even recognize the fact that the grammar is falling apart?

If you know me well, you already know what I have to say about this. If you don't, you might be in for a shock. You might think that I, as an aspiring "grammar Nazi," would rush to defend our language from the lazy, the comma-splice-happy, and the misinformed. But this is what I have to say to anyone who believes humanity will crash and burn when the Twitter generation comes of age.

The youths of today are no stupider than they were 100 years ago. If anything, they're smarter.

People seem to think that the English language is going to the dogs because teens with their thumbs glued to smartphones revel happily in acronyms and emoticons. But from my perspective, written language isn't being diluted—it's just more ubiquitous. And this is a good thing.

Two hundred, one hundred, even fifty years ago, only a tiny sliver of the population was well-educated. The elite few made the rules and stuck to them. It wasn't until the very late 1800s that schooling for children under thirteen was compulsory for most of the western world. In 1870, 20% of the US population over age 14 was completely illiterate (see the National Center for Education Statistics). And even among those who could read, there were few with the means and opportunity to do so regularly. Books were expensive; paper, ink, and the light to write by a luxury. The classics that came out of this period, which people today hold up as golden examples of how English "used to be," were produced by one or two great minds housed in pampered bodies.

Now that 99% of people in the US can read and write, the proportion of people at the top turning out pristine prose seems much smaller. And thanks to modern technologies, practically everyone can write something up and publish it in a matter of seconds. In 1900, the few people with the money and status to publish set the standard for the rest of the population. Now the rest of the population can chime in, too, which makes us look, as a whole, stupider.

But people today are, on average, much more educated and wealthy than we were in the past. We've only forgotten how low the standard of education used to be. In 1940, only 50% of teens graduated from high school. Now it's closer to 70% (or higher, depending on which source you listen to). And even those that don't graduate are usually able to attend public schools for a solid 12 years.

Think about the hoops you had to jump through to read something as late as the 1980s. You had to wait for the newspaper to land on the driveway and walk out to fetch it. You had to go to the library or the bookstore to pick up a novel in print. To write letters, you had to get stationery and physical addresses and sit down to scribble them out long-hand.

Now we read on the bus. We read in the bathroom. We tune out of movies at the theater so we can read words on little screens instead. We get up in the morning and can't wait to turn on our computers or phones to read some more. Kids today get in trouble because they get bored listening to their teachers and pull their phones out under the table to read and write instead. They're absorbing and producing information constantly. Even if people don't sit down to read books like they used to, they definitely read more overall. The amount of time the most avid of bookworms spent reading in the 1950s is probably equivalent to what the average citizen of the middle class does today.

Doomsayers will insist that all of this Tweeting and texting is only reinforcing bad habits. But do you really believe that tweens type "teh" because they can't spell "the"? Or that they confuse lolcat speak with formal English? As depressing as some of the submissions to Freshman Comp can be, I've never heard of a student who believed it was appropriate to submit a term paper that says, "I iz in ur classes, arguing 4 gay ritez."

Our beautiful literary culture is not unraveling. It was a brittle deceit in the first place. The idea that people in the past were smarter than we are today is as big and persistent a myth as the idea that nobody cussed, had premarital sex, or fell in love with people of the same biological sex before the '60s. Just because it wasn't recorded doesn't mean it didn't happen—it means the people doing the recording were disingenuous. The youths of today are not more corrupt than they were before; they just acknowledge their troubles more openly.

You want some earth-shattering facts? The teen pregnancy and abortion rates are half of what they were in the 1970s. Less than half of teens today have ever tried cigarettes or alcohol (about 42%, compared to 50-plus percent in the '90s). In 1991, 54% of teens self-reported having had sex at least once. By 2009 it was down to 46%. Young people today are more religious, more environmentally conscious, and less likely to try hard drugs than the generations before.

But still people insist they'll be the undoing of civilization. The irony is that the ones clucking their tongues grew up in the era of sex & drugs & rock 'n roll. The cry that we (the adults) are the pinnacle of human achievement, and our idiotic progeny will ruin us all, is a song as old as time. Aging cavemen probably shook their heads at the way their sons held spears and expected the species to die out with them. Yet, miraculously, we made it this far.

English may evolve away from the established standards we know now, but we're not going to lose centuries of progress because the kids can't master semicolons.

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