I have what I will title a modest proposal, although many will consider it less modest than insane coming from an academic and writer. Let’s stop pretending that the way Kim Kardashian tweets and the way so many people write is a problem that can be fixed. Who among us imagines that public schools will really go back to teaching sentence structure and prose style as strictly as in the old days? After all, today’s crop of teachers below a certain age never even knew the America where language arts were taught that way. The horse is out of the barn. Let’s consider that we are seeing a natural movement towards a society in which language is more oral—or in the case of texting, oral-style—where written prose occupies a much smaller space than it used to.
As such—might we stop pretending that ordinary people need to be able to write on a level higher than functional?
Of course everyone should have basic writing ability. What I wonder is whether everyone needs to be taught how to write an essay. That is, we could allow that in tweets and beyond, capitalization and punctuation will be approached in an individual fashion. People like Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame may tear their hair out—but maybe that’s just the way it has to be. Judging a tweet, e-mail, or even a sign according to the standards of formal prose makes no more sense than criticizing your favorite contemporary pop artist for not using oboes and violas or not writing sonatas. It should not be seen as problematic that most thoroughly intelligent adults today couldn’t write a letter like those Civil War soldiers even at gunpoint.
It may be time to understand that the writing culture of an earlier era was a matter of fashion, much like the elaborate clothing required of anyone who stepped outside.