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Feeling Somewhat Texty

In the Washington Post, Linton Weeks offers an entertaining account of the latest linguistic controversy: Whether text messaging is killing the sentence. Weeks quotes James Billington, a Librarian of Congress who fears that textspeak and abbreviated syntax are destroying the English language:

This assault on the lowly—and mighty—sentence… is symptomatic of a disease potentially fatal to civilization. If the sentence croaks, so will critical thought. The chronicling of history. Storytelling itself.

I’m sympathetic to this concern. Sentences are, after all, the fundamental units of thought. The problem with a fragment isn’t that it is ungrammatical, but that it is undefined. It has not yet amounted to a thought. Once we have a subject and a verb, we have a thought. Once we have a proton and an electron, we have an atom.

Ah, yes, but free-floating electrons are electricity.…

And Weeks knows how to electrify with free-floating fragments. Consider the introduction to his story. In it, we do not see a grammatically complete sentence until Billington himself speaks—and yet we encounter plenty of meaning:

The demise of orderly writing: signs everywhere.

One recent report, young Americans don’t write well.

In a survey, Internet language—abbreviated wds, :) and txt msging—seeping into academic writing.

But above all, what really scares a lot of scholars: the impending death of the English sentence.

Librarian of Congress James Billington, for one. “I see creeping inarticulateness,” he says, and the demise of the basic component of human communication: the sentence.

By using a progression of fragments to introduce a man who fears the death of the sentence, Weeks is bearding the lion—and he’s having fun with language.

Billington clearly is not.

But why not have fun? English isn’t fragile, folks. It’s not French. Sure, you can do violence to English, but you can’t kill it. You can’t even irreparably damage it. Nobody can do away with the English sentence, and shame on grammarians for fearing that anyone could.

In his article “The Interior View,” the great writing teacher Donald Murray said:

The student should discover that language is fun because it is a sturdy tool for the exploration of experience.… Language should be used wastefully, even promiscuously, because it is usually necessary to use the wrong word to get to the right one and to pass through the awkward construction on the way to the graceful one.

What is texting but a wasteful, promiscuous use of language? The more that young people text and write online, the more they’ll discover that language is fun and sturdy and a way to explore experience.

The problem isn’t that young people are having too much fun with text messaging. The problem is that they’re having too little fun with academic writing.

So, why isn’t academic writing taught as a fun exploration of the world?

After all, the best scholars write enthusiastically. Their words are infectious. Their voices exude the vibe This is cool. If the best scholars write this way, why don’t we teach our students to do the same? Why don’t we encourage them to use language wastefully and promiscuously as they explore their world?

So, I say, instead of trying to regulate the boom of Internet language, we need to reinvigorate the bust of academic language.

In Writing to Be Read, Ken Macrorie wrote, “Most of the phony, pretentious, dead sentences ‘composed’ in ‘English’ courses do not need improvement, but embalming.”

So, if the English sentence dies, whose fault is it, really?

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