Shakespeare, Typing Monkeys and Evanescent Eloquence

From S Anand on Flickr

A few days ago on Tribes, Seth Godin’s social network of entrepreneurs, marketers, thinkers and distinguished weirdos, a friend of mine, email-marketing maven, John Furst, posted about a post he’d read. (Danger: many “posts about posts” ahead!) John was referring to a post by Leo Bottary, who mentioned a Wired article citing a five-year study of student writing conducted at Stanford University by Dr. Andrea Lunsford.

Here’s what Mr. Bottary wrote:

“I hear people lament the demise of the English language all the time. They speak to how texting, tweeting, and other such practices are contributing to poor grammar, marginal spelling, and an inability to express oneself ‘properly’ in the written form. Lunsford disagrees. She claims, ‘I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.’ And as Thompson points out, ’For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.’

Among other things, Lunsford’s study shows they are highly attuned to their audiences and write with a sense of purpose and persuasion that is actually at a higher level when compared with previous generations. The fact that today’s young people write so frequently across so many different platforms may not make them better writers in the classic sense, but the evidence suggests they may be stronger communicators than their parents. Rather than criticizing and judging our young people, this is an area where we should learn from them.”

Forgive me for quoting people quoting people that are quoting people, but I found it an intriguing topic: with more means of communication than ever, and ever more people exercising those means, how does that affect the quality of communication? Do Twitterers that tweet every 22 minutes hone their writing (and even thinking) ability over time, or are they just twits? Is there even a basis—or need—to consider “quality” of communications when much of what is being discussed here is transient information? Though, as shown repeatedly, nothing is truly transient on the Web.

Anyway, my take (among many other Triber’s responses):

Snotty “Professional” Writer Weighs In
John, fun, interesting post. It did make me wonder if in days to come, there will some tweets that will be revered like Shakespearean sonnets and worthy of reviews, i.e., “140 characters of apocalyptic chill, melded with childlike sing-song innocence. Ranks with Eliot’s Wasteland for audacity, scope and cultural indictment.” New York Times Review of Tweets.

I’m an old crustacean, not a texter, but I do think there’s language skill-building in the rising incidence of communication outreach, whether blogging, tweeting or arranging the letters in the alphabet soup of your lunch partner. And it’s reasonable to be questioning the value of high-flown scholastic language requirements in academic settings, when the value of an assignment is based on old patterns of regurgitating leaden information in the same stilted phrasings. There is something attractive in the vivid, short bursts of thought you see everywhere online—and there’s something electric in seeing people interested in connecting through new forms.

But man, there’s a lot of crap writing out there, and I don’t mean just of the “U R Sweet” or hair-on-fire political polemic. I read a lot of stuff produced by people trying to persuade, but they don’t have any tools of persuasion. Sure, you might be able to build a lean-to of sorts with just a hammer, but not a house. And a house with working plumbing and a view? If someone is trying to shape an argument or point of view, they need more rhetorical tools than “You suck!”

The Sentence Chiropractor
Sometimes you want a sentence to bend, sometimes you want it to snap. Some word-journeys can’t be made unless you can roll the words down language hills, stall them at a cliffside, pick a metaphorical flower in the meadow and set some verbal pitons to clamber back up those hills. I’m with Randell in that I think your thought processes improve the more you work with the abstractions of language—its elasticity works well with your brain’s plasticity. Having the tools means you can build a more complex structure—maybe even a cathedral, rather than a mere house with working plumbing.

Of course, if you want to just order a sandwich, that doesn’t have to be done in iambic pentameter. But it’s a shame to settle for limited expression when there’s so much sex in deeper language, so many bright strawberries, so many dank, dangerous corners and beguiling fragrances.

Then again, in some situations, a good old Anglo-Saxon “Fuck that!” is sometimes the most eloquent response.

If a Question Falls in the Forest...
Of course, maybe there isn’t even a question to answer here. To go musical metaphor on you, from every Elvis Presley hip-waggling that presaged the decline of civilization to the Stones to the Sex Pistols to Nirvana to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, there have been people outraged and startled by the new. There is movement and jostling and crudity amid new styles of expression, but there is still much quality writing about, whether 300-word blog post or David Foster Wallace’s 1088-page Infinite Jest.

I must confess, though, I do believe in the thrill, drama and risk of skillful punctuation (be still, my beating apostrophe!) and pungent writing, now and forever, one and inseparable.

[Note to prospective clients: I will never include any “Fuck thats” in content I provide, unless by request. A well-placed “Dear Me!” can sometimes convey the essence.]