Curmudgeonly Luddites

Posted: November 11, 2011 in General Musings, Grammar-speak, Writing
Tags: , , , ,

I came across this post in a professional discussion forum some time ago, and it’s been like sand in my shoe:

When your readership, the Gen-X, is hooked on to texting and twittering, with little regard to grammar or syntax, do you, as an editor, feel that copy editing still has importance in such a context?

Some say that the copy editing field is losing its relevance and is now a field meant only for hair-splitting purists. And they say that it is pointless to worry about en-dashes and em-dashes any more. Your views please ! [sic]

I believe he meant Generation Y, or the Millenials—that is, people of my generation—but that’s a small matter. The much more aggravating thing about this post is that it’s rife with presumption.

Before I answer his actual question, I’d like to argue that there’s a distinction between texting and twittering in general and being hooked on texting and twittering. The fact that a large number of young people can use a new technology in no way necessitates that the entire generation has an addiction to it. It would be just as unreasonable of me to say, “Hey, everyone. Isn’t it annoying that those curmudgeonly Baby Boomers are all self-important Luddites?” And why would it be unreasonable? Because I have no idea if a) Baby Boomers will be part of my audience or b) that all Baby Boomers are in fact curmudgeonly, self-important Luddites. (And, no, I don’t actually believe Baby Boomers are any of those things in general.) Considering one’s audience is one of the first things you learn about writing; when your medium is the Internet, you have a wide audience to consider. When I read this post, I get the image of a really bad comic standing in front of a silent audience, saying, “Am I right? Huh?” And pretty much only the crickets are responding.

Now to answer his question. The implication that being young and capable of using new technology also makes one indifferent toward older constructs like grammar is illogical and preposterous. The idea of universal grammar is pretty well established; people notice, however slightly, when that grammar has been violated. The more high-profile the source, the more people pay attention. When I’m reading through the casual, nonprofessional Twitter feeds I follow and I come across infractions like “alot,” I don’t care. If I were to read a tweet from the New York Times, I’m going to notice “alot” and I’m going to care that someone got sloppy. Most people are that way because context lays the groundwork for understanding of and engagement with any text. Just because Jane Schmoe and the NYT post on the same website doesn’t mean I have the same expectations for both. Even we illiterate, whippersnapping technophiles are going to notice and care when a source that’s supposed to be professional and authoritative starts to get sloppy. Here’s an analogy: I don’t know how to put on stage makeup, but I definitely notice when it’s been done poorly.

As for en and em dashes, they’ve always been for prescriptivists; that’s never been any different. There will always be people who know more about a subject and make a profession out of it. No one has ever cared about en and em dashes except copy editors. And, I say that having a great deal of affection for them!

No, I didn’t say any of this in that discussion forum, thank goodness. In fact no one responded to his post. I wonder if I’m not the only one to feel this way about his attempt to start a thread.

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