See Dick. See Jane. See The Future Of English?

DAJGenerations of American school children from the 1930s through 1970s learned to read with Dick and Jane. Who could forget such classic lines as:

“See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!”

Overly simplistic, even for the time, I escaped their clutches thanks to my older sister, who taught me to read before I started school. It was soon apparent to my first-grade teacher that I could read above level. And so one of my classmates and I were given separate lessons at the third-grade level—with several non-Dick-and-Jane books.

At the risk of dating myself, I went through school when English was an important course, where we learned not only to read and write, but to think—both creatively and critically. Sure, the subject matter sometimes put kids to sleep. Anyone remember diagramming sentences? (Please, someone say yes!)

DSAnother component of the course was vocabulary building. English isn’t the most complex language, but it has a huge vocabulary. Historical events have a lot to do with that—the influx of French into England with the Norman Conquest and the use of Latin in the Catholic church, for example. English speakers (and writers) have long borrowed words from other languages, providing richly nuanced descriptions for the audience (and a market for thesaurus writers).

Old-school English classes also included  grammar lessons with endless exercises of writing sentences using various verb tenses. That multitude of verb tenses and moods also reflects a concept of multiple levels of past, present, and future as well as states of being. Not every language does that. But consider the following.

ChI know I’ve left out a few possible constructions, but you get the idea (that English can express many states of being and action, not that I eat a lot of chocolate). Even if you don’t know the “proper” terms for these tenses and moods, you likely understand the differences in meaning between them, subtle as some may be. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I can’t remember all the terms, either.)

There’s a modern view that the more complex tenses and moods like the subjunctive belong only in the realm of literary fiction. I’ve never understood that. They can be easily mixed with “simpler” tenses without losing a reader.

The Earthling didn’t get it. If I were king, I’d ban her beloved chocolate, the imported scourge that had transformed thousands of my people, including my brother, into six-foot marmots with pink fur.

But our modern world apparently recognizes only one speed—fast. Today’s communication is instantaneous, which can be a good thing (severe weather warnings) or bad (ever hit “reply all” by mistake?). And it seems most communication takes place on one of these in this format:

001When speed counts, language has to keep up. So what do we do? We strip “excess” words. Lose the descriptive adjectives and adverbs—It’s a cat, not a long-haired tabby with steely gray eyes. Simplify the verb tenses—”I ate” rather than “I had eaten.” Use simple words like “eat” rather than “consume.”

And how many bits of linguistic shorthand has texting added to the English vocabulary? I rarely text, and what follows is about all the text-speak I recognize: CYA, LMAO, LOL, OMG, TMI, TTFN, and WTF. And, of course, those previous two sentences show how a noun has also become a verb in recent memory. Based on what I’ve seen on various websites, the “text words” have probably reached into the hundreds.

Baffled as I am by all these contracted words, there was a time when they didn’t appear on my radar. After all, text words were originally confined to, well, texting, and I didn’t do much of that. People—even teenagers—didn’t speak them. But now? People actually say “O M G, you’re kidding. L O L.” Seriously? Is it really “quicker” or “easier” to say “O M G” than “Oh my God?”

Today’s 13-year-old probably doesn’t care about “the old way” of doing things or speaking any more than I did at that age. But with age does come some perspective. It’s good and right to let go of some previously acceptable beliefs and practices as the human species moves forward in time (think racism and sexism). But maybe we lose some of the good along with the bad, throwing out the baby with the bath water as the cliché goes.

I took enough Linguistics courses as an Anthropology student to know that every language evolves through time. The rules of grammar shift. Some words lose favor and new ones are coined to describe new discoveries and inventions. Culture drives language. And culture continually evolves. Our time is no different from the Paleolithic in that respect. To say language shouldn’t change is to deny innovation, creativity, and even necessity.

But is the oversimplification of a language, such as we see with modern English, in its speakers’ best interests? Does it perhaps suggest a level of laziness? Dismissal of creative and critical thought? Disdain for both new knowledge and historical memory?

Do Dick and Jane get the last laugh after all?

64 thoughts on “See Dick. See Jane. See The Future Of English?

  1. I didn’t learn English as structurally as that, but I can humph a little at certain grammatical or linguistic examples of sloppiness. Silly, really because I make mistakes with punctuation all the time, and get mixed up between “brought” and “bought” and somesuch, and have to think carefully before selecting the wrong on for my sentence. I suppose that’s one way to learn tolerance for other’s failings.

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    • I suspect very few speakers/writers of any language get everything right all the time. And we can function without knowing all the ins and outs of a language. And heaven knows I can and do speak informally most of the time. I just hate to see what seems in many ways to be a conscious and purposeful move to simplify English, as if that will somehow make us all more similar and understandable in the modern world. And I’m very suspicious of influential people who either 1) hide behind complex speech and writing to keep “others” in the dark or 2) suggest that all complex speech and writing is to be distrusted. There’s truly room for all forms of complexity within a language.

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  2. I think the first time someone actually said “OMG” to me in a sentence I double-blinked, frowned, closed my gaping mouth, then shook my head and walked away. I can’t engage in texting language conversations. I’m not fluent enough and I love language too much. 🙂

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    • I seriously doubt you will ever here me speak that way. 🙂 Of course, I always thought, like, the old “Valley Girl” use of like, would, like, never enter into my speech. But blast it all, sometimes it does! And I wish I could kick myself for it….

      If I ever include a teenager in one of my stories, I may break down and let them have one word or phrase of the “current” teen speak. But not too much. That can be a great way to date a novel way too soon. Not what we writers, who love the language, ever want to do. 🙂

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  3. I sometimes have to look up text-speak!
    My bipeds learnt to read with Janet and John books, they sound just the same though – those books were boring!
    The way that language changes is fascinating. I think the speed of change has increased because of the way we communicate.
    Standards of spelling and understanding do seem to be declining and it’s sad if that’s allowed to continue.

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    • The first time a colleague used CYA in an email, I had to ask her what it meant! I wonder which came first: Janet and John or Dick and Jane. Given how much we Americans steal, er, borrow, from the English, I’d bet the former. 😉

      I think you’re absolutely right about the speed of change being related to our modern communications. Everything is so instantaneous now. A bit off-subject, but it struck me when I was in London that the clothing styles didn’t seem any different from those I see in DC. And yet when I was a teenager, it seemed that the US was always months or even years behind London and Paris. But with the Internet, everything can reach the world in minutes. It’s tough for our cultures—and languages—to keep up.

      I have no problem with informal speech and writing. I use them, too. But I think we should remember that there are times and places where the “more complex” words and sentence structures convey so much more depth of meaning.

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      • The trick with speech used to be to use the appropriate form for the occasion. Unfortunately, all “occasions” have been reduced. Language usage mirrors attitudes and clothing. For example flipflops used to be only worn at home, the beach, the pool – no one would be caught dead wearing them in public. Kids now have very few events that require manners and “cultured” speech. Few schools here have “cultural”/ assemblies where you had to sit quietly and listen politely. Been to a high school graduation recently? Many in stadiums with bleachers and sound more like a loud basketball game with sound makers and loud cheers…pretty disturbing.
        Your post hit many on target points. It became very difficult to work with young/new writers when they don’t have a clue about grammar and structure terms…some see all that traditional mechanics/grammar are the tools that writers use to discuss improving pieces, but they have no background and it’s difficult to start from scratch – so many in a rush and don’t care, just tell me how to fix it – don’t care why.
        Educators get bored and have to have “new” concepts – which may be flashy (and get thesis /degrees/sell textbooks) but may not be so “improved”. The educational system may be part of the problem….teachers are supposed to stretch kids’ abilities and push their potential, not abbreviate it so it’s more fun and “is relevant to their world and environment”
        It’s a rushed world as you say. Interestingly, the more simple my blog post become, the more readers and responses – but these are blog posts!
        Love you last paragraph

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        • My dad used to shake his head when my friends and I all wore sneakers to school year round, not just in warm months. “In his day,” only “poor” kids wore them in winter. Of course, we still knew how to dress up for important occasions and wouldn’t show up at a formal event in casual clothes. But the flip flops and sneakers are good examples of how cultural perceptions can shift from generation to generation.

          The American school system more and more seems designed to keep teachers from teaching and students from learning. Parents no longer seem to know when they should step in and speak up or when they need to zip their lips and step back. I’m no fan of standardized testing, but I think we need a national set of education standards that every school needs to meet. And they all need the resources to achieve those goals. All students should graduate with a set of skills and ability to think that will prepare them for advanced education or let them step into decent jobs with decent pay and benefits right after high school.

          I know a number of supervisors in companies who would almost kill for college graduates who can actually write cogent sentences and paragraphs and do proper research (and citations) for their work tasks. I don’t claim to know how to solve the problems, but I think you can also see them in our shifting language….

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          • I agree all student need a basic set of information and tools – whether headed to college or work force. Right now many colleges are teaching remedial courses. That should stop. Colleges should not be teaching material that public high schools should be teaching. All kids grad
            They actually tried to create national school guidelines back during the first Bush era – but that quickly deteriorated into fights over what and how history should be taught and what literature should be covered. And whether kids needed to be taught standardized English with grammar and mechanics.
            Facts are facts. Parents should be able to get a list of facts, information, and skills (developmentally appropriate and reasonable) for students at each grade level. These do exist.
            One problem is that what some think is “on grade level” another group considers too difficult or too low. Other problems exist with the actual information in math and English classes. Do kids need to memorize addition, subtraction, multiplication tables? (Those make life easier for most) Do kids need spelling? Vocabulary studies with root words and suffixes and prefixes? Does punctuation matter when writing? Should kids in lower grades be taught math theory/language theory instead of memorizing…if the understand the why, they will naturally….
            Lots of arguments (Anyone remember tranformational grammar – the dahling of the 70’s in teaching English? Crashed and burned….justifiably -theory didn’t help Jr high kids write better….that method even baffled college kids!)
            I am not a fan of Common Core after reading it. Dump that nonsense.
            It would be better to have Suggested Guidelines for each grade nationally – without money tied to it. You’d get more cooperation. (and there should be space for each state to teach their own state history – that is important for identity. To have some ownership of the state.)
            A measuring stick for parents – who need to be driving productive learning/teaching by school districts. When will parents stand up and sue school districts for failing to educate their kids?
            Back to basics, please. Teach plain facts so the kids have foundations to build on. Until the kids can do the basics, drop the high school classes in Introductory Psychology.
            Sorry grew up with education as a “family business”…superintendents, principals, teachers.
            There was a joke when I was in the textbook industry. Make the big school district sale for 6-7 year adoptions of a textbook – then don’t bother to try to win the next round. Teachers get bored after a few years and jump at something new – even if it’s not very good – it’s new! Meanwhile kids lose without consistent K-12 progression of ideas and knowledge scaffolded on what they learned in lower grades. I once joked that the way things are going, I’d be able to make a good living just being able to write simple sentences and paragraphs…Sadly, it make be coming true?

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  4. My goodness what an awesome post. I so agree with you JM! I do think all our gadgets are causing young brains to think too quickly and miss all the good stuff. I remember diagraming sentences as well and being taught over and over the reasons for setting up sentences that way — the proper way. I can’t stand all those abbreviations and I don’t use them, so if I do text, is usually longer than people want to read. I love words, as I know you do and the way in which we can manipulate them to evoke emotion, stimulate, envision — all those elements of good storytelling.

    I believe that we need to bring this back. Dick and Jane were simply a starting point but I agree with you–they are the “It” couple now, aren’t they? HA! I think we could pitch this to the reality genre and have something really special here.

    The script should be easy and we could polish it off in about an hour–are you with me?

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    • Brigitte, reality TV with Dick and Jane—that’s brilliant! I’m with you! 🙂 Heck, we could probably write a season’s worth of episodes in a hour…..

      I am so glad to see you and several other readers remember diagramming sentences. I was sure no one was old enough to have done those in class. To be honest, I checked online for examples to make sure I had remembered correctly how to do one. I couldn’t believe how many examples there were—or how complex some were. We never had any that were as difficult as that. But then, the last class where I did them was in 8th grade.

      I use the occasional LOL and such on Facebook and in my very limited texting. I’m terrible at typing on a phone, which is one reason I do so little of it. But if you look at the photo I included, you’ll see that neither I nor my older sister used much in the way of shorthand. 😉 And I don’t believe you’ll ever catch me speaking in text. My age is probably showing there. 😉 If I tried it, I bet teens would roll their eyes in disdain.

      There are times and places where informal speech, slang, teen code, and the like are completely acceptable and even the “preferred” standard. But complete shunning of complex sentences or descriptors such as adverbs and adjectives isn’t a positive commentary on modern culture in my book.

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      • Miss you at my place. Posted, if you believe it or not. There seems to be some glitches in WP around these parts, JM. I had some with my first post yesterday after seven months. I’ve been a bad blogger.

        I know we had slang when we were young so maybe that’s what this is. I’ve heard that argument before. Do we sound like our parents? I’m going to have to leave you with an OMG on that one. HA!!!!

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        • I will stop by! Some time back, I set my notifications to weekly, and they come in on Wednesdays. I hoped limiting my time on blogs would help with the writing, but it hasn’t worked as well as I hoped.

          I think you’re right that part of what we hear is current slang. But I also know that a lot of younger employees don’t have anywhere near the writing skills we had at their age—even those of us who weren’t “writers.” And I don’t view that as a change for the better! 🙂

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          • Excellent point, JM and I agree. I cringe at some things I read at times. Them people doesn’t write so good.

            What a good idea of setting up to read and respond once a week. I’ve been out of the loop so long….

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  5. Yesterday I heard my son use LOL as a verb. I laughed because it sounded so funny. The good news is, he understands it’s not a ‘real’ word, and his English classed still do a very good job of teaching the basics. But he’s a teenager, and this is how teenagers talk now, much like we used to say “Gag me with a spoon” or “up your nose with a rubber hose.” Guess I’m dating myself there.

    Whenever I worry the English language is taking a hit or I feel guilty for using a more complex word in my writing when a simple one would do, I remember some of the great contemporary novels I’ve recently read and how they still use a variety of words, tenses, and description to get their points across. Most of what we say on a casual basis doesn’t find its way into more serious writing (other than in a character’s dialogue). But, though I can handle kids incorporating text talk into their speech, I can’t stand improper use of the word ‘like.’ A sentence full of ‘like’s makes a person sound less intelligent. “Like, yesterday I went to the store, and like this woman was, like, eating some gross, like, green thing.” When my sons drop these likes in their sentences, I try to point it out to them (they love that). It’s a challenging habit to break, but I think an important one to do so.

    By the way, do I dare admit I used to like diagramming sentences? Not sure I’d do so well at it now, though.

    Great post!

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    • I hate to admit that those “Valley Girl likes” sneak into my speech more often than I want. We must have been just young enough to have still been influenced by the younger speakers around us. But when I’m speaking in professional settings, I really concentrate on keeping them out of the picture!

      There should always be a time and place for both informal and formal language. What I fear is when some influential people hide behind complex speech and writing to keep “others” in the dark while others pronounce all complex speech and writing as something to be distrusted. Both types send chills down my spine. The best defense is to ensure all children have good educations that include learning about the complexities of language and how to think critically for themselves. They can speak however they want on the playground—but please let them know how to think for themselves and express their thoughts in other ways when the situation warrants.

      Of course, whether they know “the rules” or not, American teenagers, at least, will always yank their parents’ chains. 😉

      And I enjoyed the diagramming exercises, too!

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  6. It is so true that culture and language are intertwined and that this is part of what makes language rich and alive. How sad is it then when a government–think Croatia–attempts to control language for political reasons. Following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia’s new leaders banned words from the (former) Serbo-Croatian language that had Serbian or Turkish influences. Only “pure” Croatian words were allowed. One of my relatives who worked for the news media was fired for accidentally and automatically using one of those words on air. This is anathema to creativity and innovation at a time when both are sorely needed in that place. I prefer to err on the side of allowing language to evolve naturally with the times, even if this means hearing LOL and OMG in daily conversation. Historians and linguists from the future will be able to identify our times and know something about them (just as we do with Shakespearean English) because of these language quirks. Great thought piece, JM. Thanks.

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    • It’s a red flag for me when politicians try to control language. There’s no justification for it in any society that claims any degree of democracy and individual rights—including the US. Sadly, I know only a few bits of Serbian, but I have seen that some linguists consider it and Croatian to simply be dialects of a single language. Certainly the two have a high degree of mutual intelligibility, But to deny the use of “Serbian” or “Turkish” words is to deny the history of Croats. And denying history tends to lead to nasty cycles of repeating its worst atrocities. Removing someone from their job for accidentally using an “impure” word seems like an early step in that direction. George Orwell springs to mind….

      The Académie française has tried, rather unsuccessfully, to eliminate English influences on the French language, although the French government tends to ignore some of the Academy’s pronouncements. And I wouldn’t want to similarly force everyone in the US to speak or write a so-called “proper” form of English. I simply don’t want to see the more complex and nuanced elements to be forced out by our so-called modern world.

      I must admit to being curious how future linguists and historians will view our time. I’m not sure I would be very kind to it!

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  7. Oh yes! I remember diagramming sentences. I was quite good at it and loved it. I refuse to text in the lazy acronyms. I will take the time (And I am slow because of it) to write out everything in a text. I’m not fond of how our language is evolving into the lazy shortened forms. It makes me sad to see schools killing the love of reading and writing. It makes me sad to see groups of kids standing in a circle texting on their phones instead of talking to each other. They’re missing out.

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    • I even use punctuation marks!… and I turned off that dratted suggestion thingy that offered me unlimited variations of words based on the first couple of letters I typed.

      Never did the diagramming. Maybe it was taught differently in OZ (Australia – where I grew up)

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      • I need to figure out how to turn off that autocorrect. I made a comment once about “FB” having problems with me, and my iPad turned it into “FBI!” Just a slight difference in the way that sentence came out! 🙂

        I suspect a lot of American schools didn’t do the diagramming, either. I think it was on its way out when I was in school. Maybe Australia did away with it earlier, or it was an American thing?

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    • I’m terrible at typing on phones, which is a big reason why I don’t text very often. And, like you, I tend to spell everything out like you see in my example photo. Do we really need to turn all communication into shorthand? Is time so short in today’s world? It shouldn’t be. Really, American culture (and some others) needs to slow down and take a few deep breaths to center itself again.

      The reality is, children love to learn. At that age, we need to learn so much in order to survive, and I’m convinced a love of learning helps that process and is part of being human. What better way to learn than to enjoy it? But somewhere along the line, we’ve lost sight of that fact. And our education system suffers as a result. I wish I knew how to fix it, but I suspect bringing fun and adventure into the process would be a great start. Maybe kids would be tempted to set down the phones and enjoy interacting with each other and the wider world if we did.

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  8. Diagramming sentences. Ugh. I had to learn that twice. Once as a student, and then again when I was teaching it.

    I have mixed feelings about the “evolution” of modern communication. I do think there is a place for complex sentence structure; some things are more satisfyingly expressed that way. And while I sometimes get irritated by the dumbing down of communication (emoticons, LOL, etc.), I have to recognize that they can add a richness to the language if used in conjunction with existing language, and not as a replacement for it.

    Honestly, I’m not sure what I think.

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    • I suspect there’s no single right or wrong answer to the question I posed in this post’s title. The idea’s been in my mind for more than a year, but I wrestled with which angle to take because there are so many. Our culture has traditionally been open to outside influences, and technological innovations are often adopted before we understand the potential consequences. Over time, English has adapted hand in hand with culture and technology. I suspect, though, we’ve reached a stage where our technology can play a major role in whether or not the species continues to evolve or causes its own extinction. Our language and culture are having a hard time adapting to that rapid pace of change. I’d just hate to see us lose too much in the process.

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  9. I think our usage evolves throughout our lives. I can’t imagine speaking the way I did when I was a tween/teenager/young adult. I was always in a hurry to express myself. Now I use more words to express the nuances of what I want to say, and write. ‘LOL’ as opposed to ‘I laughed so hard and loud I scared the crows off the telegraph wires’

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    • That is so true. I know my parents sighed heavily sometimes when they heard me and my friends talking. The slang, the quick and casual disregard for “the rules” or “old-fashioned” ways that our parents spoke…. Definitely, there’s a shift through time. And the “LOLs” and their ilk have their place, I won’t deny that. But I’d hate to think the “I laughed so hard and loud I scared the crows off the telegraph wires” will disappear through disuse—whether conscious or not! There’s room for both and a good reason for both.

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  10. Wihen you begin a sentence with ‘in my day’ or reminisce about how much better the good old days were you have joined the Old Farts Club. Welcome. John and Betty helped me to read.

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    • I’ve probably been a member for a few years now. 😉 I like to think I’m still open to change, but I’ll admit I expect that change to be for the better. We won’t get into how frustrated I am with computers and mobile devices that insist on rolling out new versions that don’t work every other day!

      So we had Dick and Jane in the US, Janet and John in England, and were John and Betty in Australia? It looks like every English-speaking country had some version of these readers!

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  11. I don’t remember diagramming sentences, but perhaps I’ve repressed that memory 🙂

    I’m guilty of overusing like. I don’t mean to and I want to kick myself when I notice it. I think I use it as a placeholder while I’m thinking (similar to an um) and as I get older, and the words don’t come as quickly, I seem to need more um’s or like’s

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    • I almost think diagramming might have been disappearing from schools’ curricula even when my school still taught it. I had a truly “old school” 8th grade English teacher who made sure we learned the language!

      And I am so glad to hear you say that the words don’t come as quickly any more—I feel the same way! I’m okay when writing, but if I have to speak off the cuff? Ugh! Even the word “laundry” can escape me—when I’m carrying the laundry basket to the laundry room! 🙂

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  12. Love the conflicting thoughts and arguments for each side here, JM. My kind of post. So, first of all, what’s wrong with eating that much chocolate? I do. Heh. You know, I do not remember most of what they named certain sentence structures but just tend to automatically write the way I was taught…like second nature. As far as different verb tenses, I know them in English, but I struggled mostly with those when learning Spanish. It’s why I didn’t get such a great grade there. I can only speak Spanish in the present-tense. 😛

    I learned half of my English grammar from watching Schoolhouse Rock! Maybe they should put those back on for kids today. 🙂

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    • We don’t learn our native languages by taking grammar lessons, so why did anyone think that’s the best way to learn a foreign language? I did okay that way with French probably because I did “get” grammar, which a lot of folks don’t. But I was also young enough that I could listen to French recordings and pick up the language that way, too. But learning Spanish in college was a pain. And even though I worked in Honduras and Mexico, I never picked it up very well.

      You know, I thought I heard somewhere that Schoolhouse Rock was making a comeback….. But maybe that’s just my older brain showing a faulty memory. 😉

      I’ve been so busy this week that I’m not sure when I’ll get to visit other blogs, but I want you to know I will be by soon!

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  13. I’ll admit, I despised diagramming sentences as a kid. But, I did learn the different parts of an English sentence that way!

    It feels like in today’s environment, everyone is all about instant gratification: give me my story now, no boring details necessary. It’s soul-sucking to look at a sentence or scene I’ve spent a long time crafting and that I love, only to know that an editor is going to say, “Cut this.”

    I love different authors for their unique skills with language and storytelling. King is not Hemingway, and Rowling is neither. They’ve each got their own styles that were allowed to grow and find their audiences. Not anymore, though. It feels like we’re all being wrangled into writing the same way, for an audience that doesn’t know the difference between present tense and imperfect. That shatters me.

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    • Yep, the instantaneous nature of today’s world drives me up a wall. On one hand, I like the Internet for keeping up with family and friends and doing research. But on the other, I don’t like having to access so many places with multiple logins, passwords, and the like. Sometimes, I’d really like to just pick up the phone and talk to a live person who knows what s/he’s doing. But customer service has gone the way of the subjunctive, I’m afraid.

      If I ever finish one of these books, I still don’t know if I’ll try querying again. Sure, there’s the allure of that traditional print deal. But as you say, agents and editors might want to turn the story into something I don’t want it to be. And there’s where the indie route is really appealing. Having that control over my words is so tempting…. Of course, how many readers might be turned off by our “overuse” of multisyllable words or the past perfect? Ugh! It is disheartening sometimes.

      But that shouldn’t stop us from enjoying the act of writing for ourselves!

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  14. Wow, JM. Great, thought-provoking questions you ask at the end of this fascinating post, for which I have no good answers. Speaking as a member of the teaching profession, I can attest to the differences in how “English” is taught, at least at the elementary level, compared to when I went through public school (70s and 80s). For one thing, “English” is now called “Language Arts” and comprises Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening. That’s the case in Illinois anyway, and maybe in much of the nation as well, as states become aligned with the Common Core Standards. There’s a much stronger emphasis on the teaching of writing that goes far beyond parts of speech and diagramming sentences (I cannot believe you remember how to do that)! Young students are encouraged focus on story, in the case of fiction, or defending a thesis statement in the case of an expository essay, rather than perfect spelling and grammar. Whether this is right or wrong, only time will tell. The pendulum seems to swing between both extremes in education, and I fear the detrimental effect the lack of grammar instruction may have on the current generation years down the road. Maybe my thoughts are biased because it’s what I know. It’s hard to say. About the only thing that’s constant is change, right?

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    • It’s so interesting to hear a teacher’s perspective on the current system! Obviously, I’m many years removed from my school days, and I don’t see classes in action today. It’s interesting to see that students are being taught to defend a thesis statement—sadly, I wouldn’t have expected that based on what I’ve read from younger employees. It’s also my experience in the work world that the decreased emphasis on spelling and grammar is a major problem for employers. One of the biggest complaints I hear from managers is that today’s college graduates can’t write properly. How did such a disconnect between education and the real world needs of employers come about? Please don’t misunderstand—I don’t believe business should drive educational standards. But it seems that some needed skills for today’s world are still the old basics of “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” and American students aren’t keeping up with them—or the rest of the world. But, of course, that’s another topic all together—or a dissertation!

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      • I hear you, JM, and it’s common knowledge in the profession that employers want candidates who can write well. Where the breakdown occurs, I can’t say. Is the relaxed environment of electronic communications partly to blame? Maybe. I once received an email from a college student who was looking do some practicum hours in my classroom, and she failed to capitalize “I” throughout her inquiry! (I didn’t even bother responding). I do believe that my own children (ages 11 and 14) can write better than I could at their ages, no question. Could they identify a subject, predicate, preposition? Not without some coaching. The frustration in the profession is the curriculum is a mile long but an inch thick. In other words, there’s so much teachers are expected to “cover,” but we go into very little depth because the pressure to move on is always there. And I needn’t mention all of this is driven by Scantron and other standardized testing companies, who are probably the only ones profiting in the current system … but that’s yet another topic of discussion, or dissertation 🙂

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  15. JM, excellent posts and obviously you’ve given us much to think and debate (based on all the discussion here). I, for one, totally talk in text and slang and song lyrics and rap and whatever comes out based on who I’m talking to (kids, peers, socializing, etc). But I also know when it’s not okay and as many of your commenters pointed out that’s the key. Kids (and adults for that matter) need to know when to use proper language both spoken and written.

    I did not diagram sentences for English but interestingly enough when I learned American Sign Language (which does not have a written form) we had to learn to write it in a similar way to what you diagrammed. That was a challenge. But I love languages and they do change based on culture, as you said.

    Those abbreviations, LOL, TTYL (talk to you later) came out of necessity at first when texting cost money and you had to limit your characters, so “Laughing out Loud” – 17 characters including spaces – became 3. Now with unlimited texting plans it’s not as necessary, but it’s too late, it’s become part of our culture. I’m curious to see where it will all lead. As long as our children learn that important balance, I think we’ll be okay 🙂

    *crosses fingers

    I hope!

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    • I definitely have no problem with informal speaking and writing—in their place! Yet there are many times and situations where they traditionally wouldn’t do—and today’s culture seems to want to smash that wall. And I think that would be a loss.

      The original reasons for texting shorthand make total sense. What I find intriguing as an archaeologist (which is part of anthropology in the US) is how it became incorporated into spoken language—where there’s no need for it. It certainly seems to fit, though, with the overall increased pace of our modern world—except for when “text speak” is actually more cumbersome to pronounce than the original phrases.

      I also wonder at how the acronyms, which crunch verbs and subject, will affect the future structure of English sentences. That would be an interesting study for a dissertation if time travel is ever feasible proposition!

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      • Ooh yes send Meghan ahead in time so she can tell us what new phrases and acronymns we’ve invented for the English language. Text speak is kind of fascinating and Im also facintinated by the new words added to the dictionary each year.

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  16. I love the way you approach this topic. Yes, languages are constantly evolving, but no, that doesn’t mean we should accept the dumbing-down of the English language. I think speed can be the enemy of critical thinking and thoughtful expression. On a lighter note, I enjoyed all the references to chocolate. 🙂

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    • I was hoping some folks would comment on the examples. 😉 Not that I really eat that much chocolate these days! I truly believe humans—at least those with regular access to modern technology—are losing the ability to think critically and stay focused. Actually, a number of studies suggest that our gadgets are rewiring our brains. (I suspect it began with television.) And I don’t believe that’s a good thing….

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  17. This is such a good post J, I want to award it a prize…I don’t have a prize, but if I did, you’d get it. On facebook I’m friends with quite a few of my kids’ friends, and honestly sometimes I can’t understand a word they’re saying! Thankfully my kids mostly write in proper words 🙂

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    • Thanks, Vanessa. 🙂 To be honest, I wondered if WordPress might think this one FP-worthy, but apparently not. 🙂

      I would bet that the English school system still focuses more on important “traditional” educational areas than does the US. When managers all complain that new college graduates can’t write, then something has gone fundamentally off-track with the US education system. Because even if “writing” will someday be completely electronic, people still need to know how to get thoughts, instructions, questions, directions, etc. across to the intended audience!

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      • Funnily enough I did think it was FP worthy when I read it and I was going to say as much when I commented but then worried about jinxing it…not that I believe in jinxing, but you know…just in case 😉 It still could be though, when I got FPd it was about a week after I’d posted it that I got the email from them, and I’ve seen other FPd posts older than that. The thing is, as we know, they can’t possibly read all posts that are published, so there’s a certain amount of luck. It HAS been Freshly Vanessa’d though 🙂

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  18. The demise of written and spoken English in the 21st Century is my biggest pet peeve!!

    I love using slang and silly “text speak” BUT I recognize both as verbal shorthand because I diagrammed sentences AND took 4 years of Latin and French during school.

    Sadly, young people today (eek..saying that makes me sound so fuddy duddy!!), my own kids included, learn English more through context than grammatical structure. Such a tremendous loss!

    I recently began studying Russian—long story, will address it soon on my blog–and I think it’s been easier than expected because I understand the basic grammar rules of what I already speak!

    I suppose every generation laments what’s being lost for the next, but this one is really HUGE!!!

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  19. Context is how we first learn language—mothers, after all, don’t deliver grammar books along with the babies. 😉 And so it’s by listening to the “older” members of the group that we learn the basics. But that works best when children are surrounded by the group 24/7. Not exactly how our modern world functions! And once humans developed writing systems, those needed to be taught in a structured manner. And at some point, we defined parts of speech to help describe them and their “proper” use. It’s much easier to pass on knowledge that way.

    But in today’s world, children are faced with so many different influences in the media—some of which probably aren’t the best examples to follow. And then when they don’t learn the difference between formal and informal situations or what the job world expects, well, we end up with a lot of problems for everyone, don’t we?

    Can’t wait to hear about learning Russian! My husband thought he might try it in college, but when he looked at the course books, he changed his mind awfully quick. 🙂

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  20. I have to admit that I don’t remember much of how I learned English at school – I remember the English Literature courses more. And I suspect that I should really brush up on my grammar. I’m not really one for simplification – my partner often calls me on using more unusual words when a simpler one would do! But what can I say, I like flowery language and unusual words and even when I text I tend to do it in proper sentences!

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    • When I text, I’m the same way. I seldom use abbreviations. And I really have no problem with informal speech or even the evolution of language. After all, if it didn’t change, we’d all still be speaking the first human language. I just don’t want to see us lose the more nuanced parts of the language that can add so many layers of depth to our thoughts and feelings. Surely there’s still a place for them, right?

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    • Just as we wouldn’t understand Middle or Old English if we went backward. 🙂 The language will change—that I would bet on. I just hope it doesn’t become a pale shadow of what it once was!

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  21. LOL! (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)

    A few months ago, I was talking to a nineteen-year-old when she totally confused me and said “BRB” then disappeared suddenly. I stood there, wondering what the heck she meant. I may have sniffed my underarms to make sure I didn’t need to reapply. 🙂

    Then I got it…be right back. I not only felt old but shocked at the state of the English language.

    I believe in being open to the future rather than clinging too stubbornly to the past. So I’ll learn to understand the lingo, but that’s about all I can muster.

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    • You’re younger than I am, and you’re confused by some of the text speech? You can imagine how much worse it is for me or someone even older, like my mother! I get that the shorthand is easier for texting. But what I don’t get is how saying “B R B” is quicker or clearer than “Be right back.” So the purpose must not be to be lazier or simplify things because the speaker’s in a rush. I suspect much of it developed as “code” or slang for teens and young adults to keep their elders out of the conversations. 🙂

      I guess when someone my age has heard some of those “younger” words long enough to have them slip into my speech, then it’s time for the current round of teens, tweens, and twenties to retire some words and invent new ones! Get on it, dudes! LOL! 😉

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  22. I remember diagramming sentences, and I hated it. I much preferred dissecting the meaning of a book or a poem.

    I don’t know if kids say LOL instead of “laugh out loud” because it’s necessarily quicker, but rather, that it’s supposedly cooler. It’s just another way of putting a spin on communication. And kids have done that for eons.

    Like you, I was reading above grade level when I started school. When I was in first grade, my teacher discovered that I could read. I knew I could read, too, but my parents didn’t. I taught myself. After a bit of testing, my teacher put me in with a small group of 4th grade kids who were reading at the 5th grade level. Talk about a culture shock! So, yeah, that means I kind of missed out on Dick and Jane. 😉

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    • I don’t know whether diagramming sentences was an effective way to teach grammar or not, but I think learning the major grammar rules is important. Informal speech and writing are often fine, but there are times when a formal approach is more effective or required, and children who don’t learn how to handle those times are really at a disadvantage. Seeing firsthand the writing skills (or, rather, lack thereof) in many younger employees means I see the disconnect between the real world’s needs and what students are learning in school. And I really don’t understand how that’s allowed to continue.

      Language will always evolve, and younger speakers will always invent ways to be “cool” and exclude adults. But I hate to think we’ll lose the nuances and complexities that offer such richness to the language because there’s “no time” or “need” for them….

      Fifth grade level in first grade? You bested me! 🙂

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      • “Fifth grade level in first grade? You bested me!” Haha, well, being that advanced at such a tender age had its disadvantages. I remember sitting in the group just staring at everyone, not knowing how to interact, and they pretty much ignored me. I have a feeling I didn’t make as much headway as I would have had I been in my own one-man-reading group.

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        • There is a big difference between first and fifth graders. Those fifth graders were “the big kids” and didn’t spend any time with us! Being with third graders might not have been as bad, but Susie and I had our reading lessons in a corner of our first-grade room with another teacher or student teacher. That worked well for us!

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  23. The problem today with the quick turn around in technology and immediacy of information is how it is condensed at the expense of the English language. Not only do people (youth and adults) have a short attention span, it’s even shorter now! The texting language has created an “evolution” in English, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Frustrating too as a teacher.
    Great post JM and reminder of that we shouldn’t change something because we can but change for the better.
    😀

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    • I am definitely of the school of “change should be for the better.” Obviously not the one that our materialistic world belongs to! Technological change just to “keep things new” drives me nuts—because it usually doesn’t work as well as the earlier versions. Grrr, that could get me going on a whole ‘nother rant! 🙂

      Studies that show our modern devices are changing the way our brains work give me pause for a lot of thought. I really think we all need to regularly step away from the cell phones and such and reconnect with the people closest to us. We would be healthier and happier, I believe. 🙂

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      • Funny you say that, I turn off my mobile phone around 6pm when I am home. Time for self and family and relaxing while having a meal without the phone ringing. I stay away from the computer too in the evenings. All technology is off bar the TV. Some time to “switch” the brain off watching senseless shows 😀

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  24. Pingback: English Spelling, Though, Needs A Tough Makeover | jmmcdowell

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