The Write Stuff
‘Verbal Kudzu’ Isn’t All Bad
By Alan Crawford,
Whassup? A few years ago, my friend Leslie Savan, the longtime ad critic of The Village Voice, wrote Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever, a spirited takedown of the “verbal kudzu” that now chokes our enfeebled efforts to communicate. Words, you know, like “whassup,” though it tells us something that nobody says that anymore.
Except, of course, ironically.
“Pop language,” as Savan calls it, can have an insidious effect on how we speak and write, and it must be checked or we’ll all sound like what, in the 1980s, were called “Valley girls.” It’s disturbing that so many of us, male as well as female, still do. Nothing dates faster than trying to sound up to date, with it and contemporary. That’s why it is so important to watch ourselves, especially when we write. Writing, after all, is supposed to have at least a smidgen of shelf life, unlike casual speech.
Now comes Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist, with Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, which puts a somewhat more optimistic spin than Savan’s on how our ways of communication are changing. Slam Dunks and No-Brainers was published before (as Time’s Katy Steinmetz said in her review of Because Internet) “the ascendance of the web and the unprecedented explosion of informal writing that has come with it.”
Language evolves. It’s not static, and only really grumpy people see it in terms of rigid rules. McCulloch isn’t like that, which makes her book useful. “The formal, unemotional writing we were all taught in the classroom,” Steinmetz notes, “simply won’t do in places designed for virtual mingling,” which these days is almost everywhere.
McCulloch effectively shows how we use our keyboards “to restore the dynamism of face-to-face interactions.” As Steinman writes:
We tap all caps when we feel LIKE SHOUTING. We utilize emojis when we need to gesture, replacing those extended hands and arched eyebrows that can crystallize the meaning of vague words. We use the abbreviation lol not just to mean “laughing out loud” but also to [defuse] slightly awkward situations or to offer empathy. And we lengthen words to show how much we feeeeeeeeel.
All this is helpful as we write for readers who are accustomed to reading on their laptops and hand-held devices and are more and more unfamiliar with those quaint antiquities that are the print versions of magazines, newspapers and books. We need to loosen up and let our conversational styles — assuming they’re not drenched in “Valleyspeak” — inform our writing.
ANNOYING WORD PHRASE OF THE MONTH: In attendance. “Former President Barack Obama was in attendance for Game 2 of the NBA Finals,” USA Today reported in June. What would be so wrong in just saying he “was there”?
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