The Shocking Truth about “Proper” English: How Millennials are Changing our Punctuation and Grammar and What it Means to Us as Writers

Why Doesn’t Everyone Use “Proper” English?

I used to be a language snob, complete with William Safire trading card. Growing up with teacher parents who corrected my grammar made me hypersensitive to language rules. (“Where’s he at? Between the ‘a’ and the ‘t’!” and “You’re ‘done’? Let’s stick a fork in you!”) Plus, excelling at grammar, punctuation and spelling tempted me to think people who didn’t speak “properly” were uneducated or lazy. How could you hear correct grammar at school and (sometimes!) on TV and still say, “I didn’t do nothing” or “I should of went fishing”?

My “Aha!” Moment

Then I had a daughter with dyslexia, who not only couldn’t follow the inconsistent, irrational rules of English spelling (How do you pronounce “ghoti”?)* and grammar, but still doesn’t remember the differences between (oops! among) to, two and too.

Another sea-change in my attitude occurred when I read The Story of English by McCrum, Cran and MacNeil. As I railed against Ebonics in the seventies, I was shocked to read that my own “proper” language was the product of hundreds of years of the same sort of evolutionary bastardization. English began as West Germanic, with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arriving in England and pushing the Celts westward. It was changed by invading Norse speakers in the 9th and 10th centuries and Norman-French speakers in the 11th. During the Renaissance, French, Latin, Greek and Italian influences changed the language and grammar. Scholars tidied up English in the 16th and 17th, but punctuation was still haphazard in the early 17th century. English has been enlarged by words and constructions from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and Native Americans.

What does this mean for us today?

As a college writing instructor, I had to decide how to deal with the evolution of language rules. Many of my students** blithely changed verb tenses mid-sentence (The moon rises over the sea and shone its light on us.); others wrote strictly in past perfect (I had gone to the concert yesterday.). Some spelled the endearment “Honey” as “hunny”; refused to fix “alright,” no matter how many times I red-penciled it; and communicated in sentence fragments (Running down the road, my hair flying.).

Spelling

Spelling was often poor and errors ran the gamut. Most students compensated with spellcheck, sometimes with hilarious results (An amoeba is a single-celled orgasm.).

Vocabulary

Student vocabulary and slang changed so quickly they deserve their own column. I’ll save those for another time.

Usage

Realizing it was a losing battle, I finally gave up on correcting my students’ use of “that” for “who” (He was the one that made my skin crawl.) and “their” for “his or her” (A parent should always advocate for their child.).

Punctuation

Punctuation errors that I fear will soon find their way into the established lexicon include the death of possessive (Amandas Corvette) and contractive (doesnt) apostrophes. Students understood one another just fine without them. They don’t use them when they text, and frankly, were annoyed to have to bother with them in more formal writing.

Commas, too, are on the endangered species list. First to go will be the appositive comma (Leonardo, my tutor, showed me how to punctuate.). Almost no one saw a purpose for this. Next is the comma before the FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) coordinating conjunctions (She drank too many martinis, so she puked all over herself.). I taught entire lessons on this and still marked errors in every other paper.

Confused Words

Then there were the easily confused words: lie/lay, affect/effect, sight/cite, compliment/complement, then/than, your/you’re, there/their/they’re, to/two/too…my students interchanged these so frequently I imagine eventually the meanings will merge, as have the meanings for compose/comprise.

“Frequently” brings up another point—words that indicate amounts (between/among, often/frequently, a lot/many, less/fewer). Students generally used the more common term in each pair, ignoring the other. These poor words will eventually become archaic.

Word Order

Word order is not exempt from evolutionary change. I don’t know why or how, but “would never have” has become “would have never” (I would have never believed she was your sister!).

Here’s another change that baffles me. It has always been the rule to put the other person first, saying, “She and I…” My students invariably changed this order (Me and Daniela went to the beach yesterday. Me and her had a great time!). Where did this promotion of the self come from?

What does all this mean for us as writers?

When writing dialogue for teen and young adult characters, include some of these new constructions to ramp up the realism. Keep your eyes and ears open for other changes to our language. Becoming a keen observer of differences in usage will help you develop distinct characters. Something as simple as one character always saying, “would have never” and “me and him” helps to identify him. Another character might use hyper-perfect grammar, saying, “To whom is it addressed?” and “Yesterday, I lay down for a nap after tea.”

As a writer, teacher and editor, I will continue to observe established rules, except where breaking them illustrates a point, dabbles in experimental writing or creates colorful language for characters. However, I am much more tolerant of people who use other forms, and am more intrigued than incensed at evolving conventions. I think, though, that I’ll keep that trading card.

**Can you pronounce “ghoti” using our often-conflicting rules of English spelling/pronunciation?

/gh/ as in “rough”
/o/ as in “women”
/ti/ as in “motion”

Did you sound it out?

** All statements refer to writing by students in courses I taught between 2002 and 2014 in NJ and DE.

“Ghoti” is pronounced “fish.”

4 thoughts on “The Shocking Truth about “Proper” English: How Millennials are Changing our Punctuation and Grammar and What it Means to Us as Writers”

  1. iggy23,
    Speaking and writing are separate things. The former is ephemeral; the latter may be forever. Communicating with friends and communicating with the public are separate things. Friends don’t judge; the public can be counted on to. ( I know! I ended with a preposition–that’s another of those rules that is disappearing!) As long as you grok the differences and adjust your language to suit each situation, you’ll be a master!

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  2. Wow it really impresses (and scares) me when I see college professors saying all these. I’m about to head to university this August to study journalism and I’ve always wondered what the English standards are at that level. I can say that I cringe internally when I hear someone use poor grammar or write without proper punctuation but I know I’m not flawless myself. It’s important to have a good basic grasp of the language though because of the fluency it gives to writing and I think this is what sets people apart. These are all great pointers and hopefully my future teachers won’t get to use me as an anonymous example in their blog posts 🙂

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    1. Hi iggy23,
      Congratulations on your plans to go to university and study journalism! What an exciting time in your life! From the way you’ve written your comment, I’m sure you’ll avoid becoming “an anonymous example!”
      I want to clarify–most of my students are wonderful writers. They have original ideas and express them well. I loved working with them. Although I corrected their grammar and punctuation, content was our focus. But as I noticed patterns of errors, it occurred to me that certain traditional rules weren’t serving these students. And when rules don’t serve, they are eventually discarded. So I’m not trying to criticize here, but to predict which rules will change.
      Personally, I like the rules. I like to be able to fine-tune an idea by inserting a comma. And as you said, having “a good basic grasp of the language” promotes fluency. I also think writers need to invest in learning the canon, as this is one of the tools that makes them writers–what “sets [them] apart.” This is why I bothered my students with grammar and punctuation.
      Thanks for commenting and for giving me a chance to clarify. I wish you the best in your university and journalism endeavors!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s the same thing my English teacher used to tell me because I made a lot of subject verb agreement errors in the past.

        I try to use good English when I’m typing or speaking because it’s the first impression online and in person. When I talk to my friends, I speak very differently and have no qualms about using poor grammar despite knowing it’s wrong. I guess it’s just good enough for me that I know the rights and wrongs of the language but I may not necessarily conform to them when speaking.

        Liked by 1 person

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