A Word With The Wise

By: Daniella Lee

in the Parlor

Words: We combine them to form sentences, paragraphs and papers in order to convey meaning and emotion. Some of the best word nerds, authors, poets and the staff at Occam’s create stories with words. Would writings be as memorable if they were written using “textism”? We’ll never know. But if Shakespeare wrote “2b er naw 2b tht iz da ?” we doubt anyone would take him seriously. Patricia Harkin’s interest in the power of language led her to pursue Ph.Ds in English and Communication. Currently a Dean and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Patty took time out to sit down with Occam’s Taser to discuss the importance of formal writing skills and language in the classroom.

Occam’s Taser: How did you know you wanted to study English?
PH: I was a teenager when John Kennedy was inaugurated, and his best speeches–or, as we now know, Ted Sorensen’s, were profoundly moving to me. “Ask not what your country can do for you; rather ask what you can do for your country” and phrases like it were a rallying call for my generation. Those stirring phrases gave way to more pithy ones:  “make love not war,” for example. Such political uses of language really did change things for me. Witty, apt, use of language can have political effects. They prompted people to join the peace corps and/or to protest the (Vietnam) war. I became an English teacher and a writer because I wanted to be part of that. Even today, when people quote me in print, it’s a thrill.  Language is an instrument for moving people. That’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.


OT: What do you think is the primary difference between formal and informal writing?
PH: The situationally appropriate use of formal language makes it likely that the discourse will achieve its purpose.  But not every piece of writing tends ALWAYS to be perfectly “correct” and “formal.” “Hell, no, we won’t go” was pretty effective as anti-war rhetoric, too.  It’s important to me that when and if a piece of writing DOES break convention, it does so self-consciously, rather than simply through carelessness.

OT: What kind of changes have you seen in writing practices?
PH: I noticed after email became prevalent was a tendency to condense messages, especially by omitting context.  For example, a traditional business letter might say “In response to your inquiry of November 1”; an email might just answer the question, e.g., “yes, go ahead.”  Such practices might cause confusion.  But people got used to them pretty quickly.

OT: Have you noticed changes in writing skills due to the growing popularity of texting?
PH: The absence of punctuation. Students have pretty much always chosen not to bother with (say) semicolon/comma conventions, but until recently, they’ve pretty much always ended sentences with periods. Not any more. So, since context might already be missing, the lack of punctuation can really cause confusion. And that confusion calls for more email messages, to correct the misapprehension of the first message.

Now, what bothers me most in emails from students is an absence of context–why is this message being sent?  What’s the problem it’s intended to solve? My sense is that the immediacy of electronic communication tends to encourage people to write or text BEFORE they think a problem or a question through. We’ll all probably get used to sentences that don’t have terminal punctuation.  But the absence of context is a question of writing ABILITY.  If you’re gong to be clear, you need to establish a context.

OT: Do you think this will affect how we communicate with one another?
PH: It may be that our fast changing world will soon make “context” dispensable as well.  If the context is likely to change in seconds, it may not be necessary to establish one.  But I think it will be a while before that happens, because there are economic and political consequences of misunderstanding.

OT: “A recent study found that more texting can  have negative impacts on formal writing skills. Have you noticed a change in our generation’s formal writing skills?”
PH: Yes, but not so much BECAUSE of electronic communication practices as because of the desire for speed that these practices reflect.  And speed almost certainly leads to what Fredric Jameson calls “depthlessness.” In other words, I don’t mind at all if somebody says that she thinks a situation is gr8t.  But I am bothered if she doesn’t think about whether it’s great for everybody or just gr8t for her, at the moment.

OT: The researchers suggest because of the findings, a new form of writing in the English Language will form. What do you think about this statement?
PH: I think they are absolutely right. We’ve seen these changes before.  It used to be considered inappropriate (if not “wrong”) to use contractions.   And we used to be much more particular about pronouns (who/whom, for example) than we are now.  I truly believe the the age of the semicolon is basically over.  Language changes.  There’s no point in trying to stop those changes.  First, we can’t.  Next, we shouldn’t.  Language needs to change.

OT: What aspect of writing papers do students struggle the most with?
PH: Sentence structure–absolutely!  But, to be honest, I wouldn’t call what my students do “struggling”; I’d call it not bothering. Here, too, texting conventions probably do play a part. Linguists make a distinction between written (formal) language and spoken language.   For example, when you’re waiting at a bus stop, you can say”coming” and most of your audience (the other folks at the bus stop) will grasp your meaning.  But if you’re writing to an absent audience, a one-word message like that will not get the job done.  Texting, I think, collapses the distinction between spoken and written messages.  It’s a written message that acts like a spoken one. Hence, students who are used to texting have a diminished awareness of context.  They now tend to write more run-on sentences and produce more misplaced and dangling modifiers.  These constructions are not a problem, usually, in spoken language, but they really can hide or change meaning in important written messages for multiple, absent and varying audiences.

Whatever your career, the context in your writing needs to be clear for your reader. Texting has changed the way we communicate with each other and we tend to lose substance because of it. Next time when you’re sending an e-mail make sure you use your periods and your words to get the message across. Text lingo may be great with your friends, but never in professional settings. Wuld any1 tke u sriusly if u wrte lyk dis?


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