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“Like literally you’re so racist”: A Study in Words

Posted At: September 29, 2013 9:30 a.m.
by Susan Griffiths

Aha! Your eyes shoot open, you relax your shoulders and the lines of text pour out of your mind and onto the paper. You finally remembered the perfect word — the word that was on the tip of your tongue, the word that is exactly what you are trying to say, the perfect word.

With more than 171,000 words, the English language is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. However, with an evolving world of technology and communication, is the English language suffering?

Scrolling through a Twitter feed, more often than not, one will see numerous spelling, grammatical and usage mistakes. From “to, two, and too” all the way to “poor” versus “pour,” the younger generation struggles with simple grammatical decisions. So are the Millennials destroying or reviving the English language?

“I’m interested in seeing the fight over what English is going to be,” said Andy Johnson, a published author and English professor at The University of Alabama. “It is a dynamic language; it changes almost every day.”

Social media created a platform that allows thoughts to be expressed almost instantaneously. It is a way to articulate opinions, share ideas and virtually connect; however, it should require a basic knowledge of writing skills. While it is easy for individual users to correct mistakes, company accounts can be updated by different company representatives and thus should be carefully monitored. One misused word or phrase and a company’s Twitter page is virtually bombarded with corrections from eager followers and possibly held up to ridicule.

With new words and terms like “Y.O.L.O” (you only live once) gaining popularity almost entirely via social media, another question emerges: Does the lack of rigid rules in the English language make sense?

“You look at a language like French, which was created and studied in the French Academy. It is set in stone. English speakers don’t have that,” said Johnson. “It is what you make it.”

The linguistic structure of English allows for a variety of choices when it comes to selecting the perfect word. However, with these choices comes the issue of similar words with different meanings.

Let’s take a look at a word that is not only provocative, but vastly misunderstood: racism. The American media and general population are using this word more and more. We saw it this summer over a controversial verdict and more recently, students at The University of Alabama have come in close contact with the harsh word.

Racism is a “buzz word,” a word that causes readers to want to read more and possibly see behind the shroud of secrecy that circles race issues in the United States. However, this word is often misused. Racism refers to an individual or group believing they are superior to another based on race. Racism is often used when the word “bigotry” or “prejudice” is more appropriate. It is a word whose original meaning has been expanded through use until it has become a word that is now understood to also mean intolerance, bigotry and prejudice — a word that encompasses a broad array of hateful thoughts and actions.

While the language has some wiggle room, there are words and phrases that are almost constantly misused, misspelled or misunderstood:

To, two, too:
“To” — infinitive verb phrases “To go” “To eat”
“Two” — only used as the number 2.
“Too” — a word to explain “in addition to” or an excessive degree
There, their, they’re
“There”— in reference to location
“Their”— the possessive form of they
“They’re”— the contraction of they are
Your, you’re:
“Your” — the possessive form of you
“You’re” — the contraction of you are
Literally — the true, exact meaning. Not figuratively.
Could care less — this phrasing would mean there is a capacity to care less, rather than the correct phrase “could not care less”

Words have meanings, and changing their meanings can modify legal documents or contracts in a conceptual way — potentially altering meanings in historical documents like the Constitution of the United States. If one changes the definitions, ideas that were once meaningful are corrupted or become meaningless.

Throughout our nation’s history, our lives have been constantly shaped by the documents and the writings of our forefathers — writing, many would argue, that is nothing short of pure beauty, elegance and significance. As time marches on, we have moved from pages and pages of descriptive language to 140 characters or less.

“The form of, say, Twitter, puts a premium on brevity, abbreviation, fragmentary and transitory thought. It is not realistic to expect language to soar in those conditions,” said Geoffrey Norman, a nationally syndicated political and adventure writer. “ More important, I think, is the fact that many people — and not just young people — believe that fluency, precision and elegance in language is sort of  . . . dull and stuffy and not hip and with it. Slang, words and phrases that are used over and over, clichés . . . using these are more socially acceptable and lead to you being accepted. We all want that. The young most of all.”

“The voice of our generation” has yet to be found. We are stilling waiting for our Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, our Plath and Tolkien. But until then . . .

“Read everything and anything that interests you,” said Johnson. “Read the classics, poems, comics. Anything.”

While we can appreciate and admire the aspect of Twitter that requires brevity and precision of thought, perhaps we should also consider what we may have lost in the process.

“The movie “Lincoln” got at how much the man was able to accomplish through a mastery of the language and a feel for its music. ‘With malice toward none, charity toward all  . . .’ or ‘ . . . the last full measure of devotion.’ And many other phrases that send shivers up the spine,” said Norman. “We listen to them, or read them, and it occurs to us, with some little sense of shame, that you don’t read that sort of thing on Twitter. And that this is a pity.”

Whether or not the Millenials are hindering or enhancing our language remains to be seen. The English language continues to evolve — new words are created, old words fall become archaic, and existing words take on new meanings. It is a language that has shaped history and is widely accepted and used (spoken, read and written) across the globe. And as one of the most inspiring authors of all time put it:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.” — T.S. Eliot


  1. Post comment

    This article is witty, well-written and eye catching. The introduction gave the reader a hint of the remaining content of the article.

    I agree with the writer about the english language becoming more casual rather than sticking to grammar rules. With the growing popularity of social networks, it is easy to post a tweet or Facebook post without thinking about the rules what we learned in grammar school. I am at fault for sometimes posting on a social networking site without making sure it is correctly edited. The younger generations need to understand that once something is posted, it is out there for the world to see. Making sure we edit before we post is vital for a future career in public relations.

  2. Post comment

    This article is written very well. I like the opening lede; it grabbed my attention. The issue of missing using the English language is a growing one.

    However, I would like to see more consistency with your argument. I feel like it somewhat jumped around from social media to racism then to history. There needs to be a main focal point for your piece. I felt like I was reading a piece on how social media was killing the English language; then racism was thrown in there and only spoken about briefly. Like the comment said above I also believe there could have been better transitions between the arguments.

    The title was great; it grabbed my attention. I also really like the ending quote, very relevant to the piece. This was a great topic to cover and I personally don’t believe there is enough coverage on this issue. You seem to have a good handle on what you’re writing about — just a few things to fix and maybe focus on.

  3. Post comment

    I, too, agree that this article is both informative and well-written. The exact definitions of commonly misused words in the middle also had me amused.

    However, I wish the article could add in information about failing grammar regarding print news. Since 140 characters have condensed our journalism so much, does that mean print media no longer has as strict of rules? Or the fact that print media is dwindling in the United States daily when newspapers are only printed twice a week in some places, does this mean that less attention is paid to correct grammar usage in this area as well? I recently attended a University of Alabama Honors College presentation on news today. Rick Bragg, of the UA Journalism Department, said he would rather remain a “dinosaur” in today’s journalism world. Since social media has such an impact on how society gets their news, the question arises whether or not grammar or news is more important. If a reporter only has 140 characters to get urgent news to the world, does it matter which form of “to” is used?

    I am sure that I am only passionate about this topic since I just listened to a great argument regarding today’s journalism by Mr. Bragg, but I think it would an interesting topic for Susan to have touched. Aside from this suggestion of personal interest, I think Susan raised great points in this article.

  4. Post comment

    This is a well-written, thought-provoking piece. Great intro, flow and solid closing quote.

    However, I would like to hear a more balanced argument involving the ways in which our language is being enhanced, rather than focusing on the ways in which our language is being hindered. The article focuses more on the losses of moving from descriptive language to “140 characters or less” than the benefits of reaching mass audiences more quickly than ever. I believe brevity makes our language even more powerful as we must exercise precision in our word choices.

    Also, I agree with the assertion that “the younger generation struggles with simple grammatical decisions” but is this a consequence of the evolving world of technology and social media? It seems to hint that technology and social media are the root cause of the commonly misused words and phrases mentioned in the article. I would like to see a stronger link between these two things.

    Other than the two concerns mentioned above, I think Susan nailed this article.


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