Holding back the tide: English education here and now

One of my high school English teachers posted this article describing the struggle on the job, including ever-falling expectations and aspirations for students regarding the English language. My comment was as such:

English class is a battle between one person attempting to uphold a linguistic tradition and a couple dozen attempting to normalize their errors.

One of the examples given in the article is the abuse of “literally” in non-literal statements. Despite that being a gross misuse of vocabulary, I pointed out that Google in the past year has amended its definition of the word to acknowledge misuse.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 7.29.09 PM


Such is the ongoing journey of English, which is reminiscent of the Geocities-era Internet- unregulated (unlike many other languages which have some sort of academy overseeing things), fragmented across space, and full of contradicting opinions. At some future point I’d imagine a post facto classification change, where what is spoken now is called Later English or something, and its rules and idiosyncrasies frozen in time along with Middle and Old English. What English instruction boils down to is a defense of a particular hill- what grammar, usage, spelling, and pronunciation were in a particular place at a particular point in time. Those students who don’t want to learn or don’t take lessons to heart will over time dictate what is current and what becomes archaic.

I once played a game of pool in a Portland bar, teams of two. One member of the opposing duo was from the Continent. He had grown up playing a very strict, organized rule set. My friend Gavin and I learned pool incorrectly from other kids (during summer camp, in my case) and had never figured out a set way to play the game. Thus dubbed “American Rules”, technical questions were not answered with “yes” or “no”, but rather “sure go ahead” or “maybe not”. English is a great example of the American Rules mindset. And I have immense respect for those that attempt to corral all the that chaos and teach an interpretation of English that promotes clarity and precision. In my not-that-long life, slang and vocabulary has undergone a radical change in the digital age, that increasingly departs from a English curriculum that hasn’t changed nearly as much. Every teacher has to drag students out of that universe and make them write something totally different.

Tough work, because the English language marches on, in a different direction in each place and with each community.


The ellipsis

It’s fascinating to observe written material on the Internet- formal and informal. Not just that it’s often a grammatical mess, but what changes and why they might be changing. There are entire dissertations to be written about capitalization (why do conspiracy theorists, above all, have idiosyncratic capitalization?) and comma usage, but I’ll focus on one specific punctuation mark. The ellipsis.

On a technical level, there are only two reasons to use an ellipsis, defined by three periods with spaces between them ( . . . ) or with a bracket ([ . . .]).

  1. When quoting written material, to indicate that some content has been removed in the interests of space or keeping on a single subject. Used typically in the middle of a sentence; a quote rarely starts or ends with an ellipsis.
  2. When transcribing spoken material, to indicate some kind of pause or rest in what is being said.

Several people, such as posters on a forum I moderated several years ago, and a woman who comments on a Facebook page I run, have very creative uses for an ellipsis, or an ellipsis-like mark.

People often link full sentences with three periods (no spaces, so not a true ellipsis). Many rarely use a traditional period, ending each thought or post with a trailing triple-period.

Why do people write this way? I have a theory.

In spoken conversation, one has the benefit of tone of voice and body language. Some kind of trailing mark online could be a way to avoid sounding too direct (“We should hang out.” versus “We should hang out…”). Another is a way to encourage response without posing a direct question [Canadians use ‘eh?’ to turn a statement into a question, in a brilliant grammatical innovation]. It would be bizarre, however, to think that someone who writes a whole paragraph linked by triple-periods has some kind of larger statement they’ve whittled down for length. Maybe they have, and good on them for sparing us some unnecessary reading.

This post was created due to the copywriter author talking to another copywriter in a bar.