Y’All Stupid.

First off, a disclaimer: I’m a language snob.  I may use a wide variety of frowned-upon slang, obscure localisms and creatively-worded profanity, but I also know the difference between a complete sentence and a formless vomiting-up of consonants.

If only that were the norm.

Over the past decade, society’s general appreciation of language has taken a turn for the apocalyptic.  I’m not just talking about bad grammar or mystifying syntax, because everybody makes common errors despite their best intentions.  And I’m not the kind of typo nazi who seizes on a single misspelling as a convenient excuse to invalidate a person’s entire argument (see: any comment thread on Newsvine).

What I’m talking about is an increasing public resentment toward intellectuals, literature, complexity and complicated communications in general.  I’m talking about the dumbing-down of modern discourse due to complaints that big words make subliterate people feel small.  And I’m talking about the general refusal of broader society to hold itself to a higher standard than an elementary school reading level for fear that the great unwashed masses won’t be able to play along.

But mostly, I’m talking about the following three examples of things that confuse, exasperate and infuriate me.

How You Use Language Defines You In the Eyes of Others

It’s one of the uncomfortable truths of Twitter: if you pay attention to the Trending Topics, you can often tell which ones were started by a “metropolitan” audience and which ones were started by an “urban” audience.  That’s because the metro hashtags usually involve mainstream news items or technology headlines, while the urban hashtags tend to be grammatical affronts like #uknowuhood and #uknowurathug.

When I noticed a recent topic called #teachaniggatuesday, I made a few sarcastic remarks on Twitter that prompted some exchanges with African-American Twitter users.  My argument is that anytime a culture chooses to refer to itself by a slur, no matter how empowering they feel that action is, it’s another excuse for outsiders to write them off.  One of the counter-arguments I received was, essentially, “I refuse to be categorized.”  And yet, by proving yourself to be someone who’s comfortable referring to yourself in the pejorative, you’ve drawn a line between us, because I’m not.  (And, I suspect, if I did use your word to describe you, you would interpret it in an entirely different way.)

Does it matter?  Only if you believe that we can brand ourselves with language but still work together across party lines.  Given how drastically that linguistic divide leads to ruptures in the culture, I doubt it.  And considering the vast number of personal experiences I’ve witnessed over the years, in which a lack of cultural or linguistic commonality led to passive-aggressive or downright hostile interactions between individuals or groups of people, I’d say yes, it matters one hell of a lot.

You Cannot Value Communication Without Valuing Clarity

An anecdote I often retell, from my days in art school:

One day, I noticed spelling errors in a storyboard that was included among the best-in-class, which had been showcased in the hallway display case for all to see.  I mentioned it to the instructor who’d deemed it worthy of inclusion, and she explained to me that she graded ideas, not grammar.  In her mind, the concept of the storyboard was worth highlighting, and the misspellings could be overlooked because, “in the real world,” someone else would probably catch it and correct it before it went live.

Which, as we all know, doesn’t always happen.

What she failed to see is the implication of her praise: that by rewarding a project with obvious grammatical errors, she was actually rewarding inattention to detail, and informing the full viewing public — including prospective students and their families — that doing an entire job right isn’t as important as doing part of a job well.  It’s this kind of isolationist perspective that convinces people our systems aren’t interconnected, and that we can allow aspects of it to break down because the elements we choose to focus on will somehow elevate the whole.  Romantic as that is, what you’ll actually end up with is a beautifully painted bag of shit.

People Resent Complexity Because It Makes Them Feel Stupid

The Harvard Magazine recently reprinted excerpts from a book by Professor Louis Menand, in which he discusses the dangers of academia’s self-perpetuating cycle.  Among his concerns are the rarity of dissenting opinions to get absorbed into the academic mainstream and the disconnect between the annual glut of PhDs and their inability to find meaningful work.

Predictably, the vast majority of comments on this article take a side, either in favor of Menand’s arguments for a more liberal PhD structure or against.  But two comments in particular stand out because they take a stand against academia itself.  They read, in part:

As a layman, I have I hard time reading and understanding this 5 internet-pages article. And after navigating through that jargons and high-falutin’(i know it’s a slang) words, it all sums to this —Ph.Ds’ problem is they have a hard time getting a job. Frankly, how many Ph.Ds does this nation, or the world need?

and

ALL THESE ACADEMICS WRITE TOO FANCY. EVERYTHING GETS OBSCURED BY SUCH FANCY LANGUAGE. COME DOWN TO EARTH PLEASE.

At first, I was inclined to label the first comment as a self-answering question, but in reality, no amount of PhDs would ever help that person understand the crux of the article.  What he (and millions of others) need is better education at the elementary level, so the mere concept of higher education isn’t seen as a service we can live without.

As for the second comment… well, I know I said I wasn’t a typo nazi, but I draw the line at Caps Lock.

Nonetheless, I’m torn between my gut instinct to give these people a book and the sad reality that they wouldn’t know what to do with it.  And that’s not necessarily their fault.

It’s yours.

Who Dey?

Since we can’t blame failing public education entirely for our growing lizard-brained crisis, we’re instead forced to turn the mirror of causation back on ourselves.  At some point over the past few decades, we — seeming innocents like you and I — allowed concepts like complexity and intellectualism to become labels of oppression.  When did it happen?  It’s hard to say, and although I have my guesses, that’s still beside the point.  The point is that it happened, and we could have stopped it, but we didn’t.

We’re afraid to correct others because we’re afraid we’ll be corrected ourselves.  We accept the downward slope of ethnic slang because insisting on audible, legible, coherent expression seems somehow racist, classist, or culturally insensitive.  By allowing everyone around us to backslide into unintelligibility, we’ve effectively admitted that this erosion is all right; that we’re the ones who are wrong for speaking properly, for thinking in complex patterns, for utilizing terms and expressions that would send laymen scrambling for a thesaurus.  We shouldn’t impose our views on everyone else because, honestly, that would be expecting too much.  We’ll forgive your incomprehension because you’re right: clarity is oppressive.

But if we’re the ones who let this mess spiral out of control, then we’re also the ones who can fix it.  The general public won’t wake up tomorrow clamoring for box sets of Masterpiece Theatre, so it’s up to us to remind them, word by word, sentence by sentence, conversation by conversation, that there is a standard level of discourse that’s worth adhering to.  It isn’t always spelled right — but it should be.  It isn’t always culturally homogeneous — but it bridges the gaps.  It doesn’t have to involve a veritable cornucopia of polysyllabic words — but it most appreciably can.

Because if we can’t reframe the argument against the intellect, and prove that coherent expression is imperative to our cultural growth and survival, we’ll never be able to convince anyone that clarity — much less complexity — is worth fighting for.

  • http://www.brighttribe.com Brian Dempsey

    Absolutely brilliant article. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Paul Bard

    “…send laymen scrambling for a thesaurus.”

    The use of the thesaurus, instead of the dictionary, is part of the problem. Many people seem to think that all synonyms are interchangable. Rather than a thesaurus, which tells how words are similar, people should refer to a dictionary to see how words are different.

    A lot of clarity is lost in the pursuit of linguistic novelty over precision. People would rather be “fresh” than accurate.

  • Jen Strange

    um, I think I love you. brilliantly said.

  • http://www.justinkownacki.com Justin

    Paul: Your explanation of the difference between dictionaries and thesauri is correct. I’d like to think most laymen already have a dictionary in their homes, so they wouldn’t need to scramble for one, but perhaps I afford them too much credit.

    Also, I’m glad you suspect I want to be “fresh.” I was hoping for “fly,” but I’ll take what I can get.

  • C. Zimmermann

    I agree with almost all of your points, particularly about the art school teacher, but you have proven in this very eloquent piece that clarity does not require the use of of an SAT prep book vocabulary. I believe in the importance of grammar and spelling in the interest of clarity, but if the use of polysyllabic words means the reader will miss the point, then communication is sacrificed. I think the burden falls on teachers and parents and even, perhaps, employers to correct the errors and raise the bar, so we can all enjoy a more literate future.

  • http://www.thegspod.com John R. Carman

    U TALK LI KE A FAG AND UR SHITS’ ALL RETADRED!!!!

  • http://www.justinkownacki.com Justin

    C: My point is that polysyllabic words shouldn’t be criminalized in the public’s estimation. If an article is “over your head,” you’re right that you won’t be able to grok the necessary information within. But that’s a two-way opportunity: the audience can choose to expand its vocabulary in order to obtain more information, or middlemen can opt to rephrase obtuse articles into more easily-digestible formats.

    The onus shouldn’t be on the originators of the concepts to deliver them at the reading level of the lowest common denominator, but to provide the full breadth of their ideas in a compelling a way so that others are moved to pass the information along in their own voices.

  • http://reallybigpeach.com Katrina Miller

    I would argue that sadly, most “laymen” do NOT have a dictionary readily accessible. Or, know what to do with one if they found it, considering it does not contain a “search” field.

    I have been mocked into adulthood, even in the workplace, for my large* vocabulary. It baffles me. When and WHY is being literate such a bad thing?

    This reminds me of a debate I was reading early, of AT&T suing Verison over their TV commercials. AT&T felt that consumers where not smart enough to understand the commercials, and would be confused. EVERYTHING does not need to be dumbed down, the more it happens the more wonderful, beautiful, and important details are lost.

    * I don’t feel that my vocabulary is very large at all, but this is what I have been told.

  • http://capecodjewel.blogspot.com Linda :)

    Wonderful article!

    Ever since my oldest child began school, I have been pulling my hair out over what is considered acceptable work in school. She would bring home papers that had actual teacher’s translations of my child’s writing, along with glowing grades of work that was totally undecipherable by myself. It seems to me, that the dumbing down of public schools began with the teaching of “phonics” before proper spelling. “Let’s let the little buggers express themselves first, so they can get a sense of accomplishment, THEN we’ll teach them how to read and write.” Well, it didn’t work, and it’s a disgrace.

  • Gary

    Good article, and I agree with most of it. It’s too bad you shot yourself in the foot with the two following egregious errors.

    “we — seeming innocents like you and I — allowed concepts like complexity and intellectualism to become labels of oppression” I refer, of course, to the “I” that should be “me.”

    and

    ” for box sets of Masterpiece Theatre” which should, or course, be “boxed” sets. After all, it’s not sets of boxes they should be clamoring for; it’s boxed sets of DVDs.

    And as for uberVU, please note that “cliche” is a noun, not an adverb.

    To Katrina: My 15-year-old grandson has what I would consider a good vocabulary, not great. For the past few years, he has been mocked for using “big words” that are common, every-day words. Fortunately, he has the self-confidence to ignore them and continue learning new words.

  • chris wyatt

    Wow Justin, I just stumbled through here from Chris Brogan’s blog and I really enjoyed reading this article! I look forward to reading more about your insights and thoughts about laziness through language; keep it up!

  • Chris Baltzley

    Came over from World’s Strongest Librarian – I think I love you. ;p
    Two things you brought to mind:
    I knew I was in trouble with my new roommate in college when she complained about all the big words I used and the one she was referring to at the time was “opportunity”.

    I forget that I tend to hang out – even on Twitter – with a higher-than-average crowd (at least in terms of thought process and grammar) when I go check out the public stream for a minute. That usually sends me fleeing back to my safe world of people who can actually put together a coherent sentence – even in 140 characters. (And, yes, I know I overuse hyphens and sometimes start sentences with “and”. Girl’s gotta let loose once in a while!)

  • http://compostermom.blogspot.com Daisy

    If the lay reader doesn’t have a dictionary, the writer needs to make sure the context makes sense. In that way, the reader can comprehend the piece, even if it contains a few unfamiliar words. Interpreting vocabulary in context is a skill we teach — in elementary school.

  • Sean

    I was always told (by my father) that “you and I” is correct as opposed to “you and me.” So which is it? Also, I believe uberVU used the word cliche as an adjective. To use it as an adverb, one would have to say something like “He talks clichely” which is a monstrosity no one should ever utter, or even write again for that matter.

  • Sean

    Oh, wait. This explains it: http://www.betterwritingskills.com/tip-w026.html

    So, in the above case, “you and I” would be correct.

  • Sean

    I mean “you and me.” Sorry. :)

  • http://www.thesumofdavid.com rasager

    I love this. Thanks, Justin.

    I would never claim that my grammar is flawless or that my vocabulary is particularly robust, but the value of speaking in clear and concise terms does seem to be dropping.

    I hear unfamiliar words all the time and I STILL look them up in the dictionary. Anyone that deems a word not worth knowing because they didn’t learn it in the fifth grade is not only missing out on a rich language, they are resisting the idea of effective communication.

    If the nuances of language are being bleached out to accommodate the average, doesn’t that mean the average will continue to fall lower and lower? 200 years from now, will we still be able to read and appreciate Jane Eyre? I hope so.

  • John Keogh

    I love this article! If you leave culture in the hands of the lowest-common denominator, you end up with a lowest-common denominator culture!

    However, I don’t think this is as new an issue as your article implies. Both my parents are intellectuals and they tell me stories exactly like these from the 50s and 60s. I look back at the Middle Ages and see all the superstition and charges of heresy that brought down some of the greatest minds in history. In my childhood, growing up in a fairly rural, small town, being smart was one of the worst things you could be in the eyes of your classamtes. There has always been resentment towards the well-educated and well-spoken. And given how intimately education has always been tied to prosperity and resources – even today in our supposedly egalitatian society – I can’t say this resentment isn’t justified on many levels. What we need to do is show that education and discourse don’t have to be tool of oppression, that it can improve a person’s circumstances, that it can be the best tool to confront and redress inequities in our society.

  • John Keogh

    On the other hand – language evolves through use and to be used. As one of my semantics professors put it: Language is what people speak, not what some university professors says it is.

    On the other, other hand – language and communication are separable things. What I find most cringe-worthy isn’t the lack of vocabulary that afflicts so many in our society – it’s the inability to put even basic words together into a comprehensive sentence. I think the aforementioned vocabulary problems are indicative of a much larger inability to communicate clearly.

  • Beth Richards

    Most interesting to me was what I experienced after showing this to my mother, a collegiate English and composition teacher. What followed was an hour-long grammar correction session of the above article. She sincerely wishes to post her improvements. Perhaps this would be possible?

    Thank you,

    Beth

  • http://www.justinkownacki.com Justin

    Beth: By all means, if my own grammar is worthy of an hourlong correction in order to validate the above article, please do have your mom post her corrected version of my article on your blog (or hers) and let me know so I can link to it. She may not be able to correct the grammatical mistakes of the individuals in the examples I’ve cited above, but if she can improve my communication skills, perhaps some good can come from this article after all.

  • http://www.theuniuni.com/ Payton_vege

    Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!