Expressing to Be Interpreted

Writing has become a contentious art. In one corner, you have the formal, academic rules. And in the other, you have what is often referred to as “txtspeak”, a set of rules that really kind of aren’t. As a writer, a writing teacher, and an editor, I’ve become fascinated with the spectrum of writing rules and how we as a society and how we as the involved professions have reacted to this. Some say, “Well, language is living, and it’s currently in a state of evolution.” Others fight tooth and claw for the  rules.

I tend to err on the side of the rules for one simple reason, one I often remind my students and my beta reading and editing clients about: Writing is a means of communication. That’s its whole purpose for existing. The one exception might be a private journal, where writing serves as a means to codify thoughts, feelings, and memories…but that still means the person who wrote it probably intends to look back at it later and glean information. So, it’s still a form of communication.

While I was deep in trying to decide how best to evolve this blog to keep up with the changes that were taking place in my life last fall, I had in the same day two different conversations, one with a fellow writer and one with a fellow teacher, about this idea of communication and the level of formality. It was interesting, even if neither conversation reached a fulfilling conclusion.

The writer was thinking about voice and audience, and about how a writer’s voice in certain contexts is a collaboration with the audience, in what the audience brings to the story. Collaboration is highly dependent on communication, and so it made sense that she was thinking about the accessibility of her own writing voice.

The teacher felt that we should be teaching dialectical English instead of what we teach as “standard English”. When I asked how he saw that going along with teaching students to write to be understood, he announced that clarity is bunk. I know from years of lurking around writers and editors that the number one reason writers, especially writers just learning the craft, are steered away from writing dialects is because it can be so hard for those who don’t live in an area where the dialect is spoken to make sense of it, so I  was a little surprised to hear an academic take such a strong stand (especially when he failed to defend it).

We know from studying centuries-old texts in standard English classes that language does evolve as the society it serves evolves. We see it. We explore it when we attempt to modernize a story to where we currently are in our language development. And it’s interesting to think about how this formal vs. informal rules continuum is fought and evolves along with the evolution of the language itself.

How about you? Where do you fall on the continuum, and why?


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