On the Death of Written Communication

Over this winter break, I’ve been reading through the autobiography of Mark Twain, released this past October. It is amazing on many levels.

I’m currently reading a section in which Twain recounts his life events as portrayed through the writing of his daughter, Susy, who at thirteen years old decided to compose her father’s biography. Twain reproduces the words of her biography in this section verbatim, and in fact he gives his future editors instructions to not change a single word, spelling included. He writes:

The spelling is frequently desperate, but it was Susy’s, and it shall stand. I love it, and cannot profane it. To me, it is gold. To correct it would alloy it, not refine it. It would spoil it. It would take from it its freedom and flexibility and make it stiff and formal. Even when it is most extravagant I am not shocked. It is Susy’s spelling, and she was doing the best she could — and nothing could better it for me.

What is striking (to me) about Twain’s instructions is not that he requested for his daughter’s spelling errors to not be corrected. What is striking is that they’re not all that bad for a child of thirteen. Susy consistently misspells “Buffalo” as “Bufalo,” and will occasionally leave out a letter or two from longer words like “extraordinary.” Aside from a few minor points here and there, her writing is actually phenomenal; her sentences are well-formed, her vocabulary is good (she uses the word incessantly at least twice), and she gets her point across clearly. Did I mention that she was thirteen when she wrote this stuff?

With Susy’s biography in the back of my mind, I’ve been struck lately at just how awful writing has become in recent years. Take, for example, the following screenshots. The first is from a review on Netflix, and the second is from a review in the Apple store:

These (extreme) examples are more for humor’s sake than anything else, but they do convey a point: written communication has changed.

I’m not sure what elementary education looks like these days (honestly)…I remember taking frequent spelling tests, and I remember typing papers on word processors that did not have spelling or grammar checkers. We were expected, not only to learn how to spell, but to care when we had misspelled something. Likewise, if a sentence wasn’t clear, we were told to change it. With the advent of more or less open communication mediums (like review systems and, let’s face it, blogs), people are able to simply write whatever they want and they assume that they’ve made their point (if they care to make a point in the first place). Often, people who “communicate” via Facebook, Twitter, reviews, etc., assume they’re writing to someone, when in reality they’re just writing into the air. It seems to me that this has at least contributed to the development of a writing style that operates apart from any rules of style or criticism. It’s the sort of writing style that makes sense to the person who wrote it, but not to anyone else.

Case in point, undergrads. In communicating with undergrads this past semester, both through e-mail and through paper grading, I was struck by how good and how bad their written communication can be. I read some really great papers as well as some not so great papers. I received some e-mails that I understood and some that I didn’t. I know, therefore, that bad writing isn’t just an “age thing.” It might in part be an age thing, but its more of an education thing. I offer here an example of what I’m talking about:

  • In more than one paper, I encountered abbreviation slang such as LOL and OMG. So, for example, “When I read what X had said about the Gospel of Mark, I was LOL!” Or, in another case, “One time I met a Christian who said X, and I was just like OMG.” Neither of these quotes are verbatim (for the sake of privacy), but you get the point.

When I encountered things like this, I obviously made note of them in my comments. Every spelling error, every slang abbreviation, every nonsensical sentence received some sort of mark. In conversations that followed, students were upset about my comments, and some could not understand why I had counted off for things that were so “small.” My response to them was always that one of the purposes of college is to learn how to communicate, and one of the means by which we communicate is writing; if your writing does not clearly communicate what you’re trying to say, then your writing is not fulfilling its goal. A few replied that this is simply how people communicate these days.

So, I wonder…has the craft of writing (broadly speaking) taken a turn for the worse, or is it just evolving? Are slang abbreviations simply destined to become a part of the way that we write, or are they nuisances that need to be squashed? Is the consistent spelling of words useful, or is it really just another form of oppression?

I welcome your comments and criticisms.

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3 thoughts on “On the Death of Written Communication

  1. Thought-provoking. Is spelling the canary in the coal mine? I often worry that the most resplendent forms of writing are already lost to us. I find myself thinking – more often than I would care to admit – that poetry is dead, and literature not far behind it. The ability to think flexibly within the refined craft of a structured sentence is swiftly falling out of reach. I fear that one day we will only write sentences to express how we feel at the moment, regardless of whether anyone comprehends it. There will be no imagination, and indeed no expression, since if I am to be heard someone must do the hearing.

    Then I wake up from the nightmare and remember, “Perhaps we cannot cease to be human in every way.”

  2. Canary in the coal mine…I’ve not heard that expression for a while! I’m not sure, to be honest, if the death of spelling is merely the surface expression of a deeper decay (if that is indeed what you’re asking). I personally like to think of problems with spelling these days as symptomatic of the fact that we don’t really need to know how to spell anymore. Word does it for us…so does WordPress.

    I find the concept of writing only for the moment to be interesting, especially in light of Twitter’s 140 character limit…not much room to express anything other than the moment! I don’t really have that much of a problem with Twitter, to be honest, but it does illustrate the point!

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