Language is a tool

In the early days of Twitter, a regular refrain was “it’s only Twitter” when one took offence at the contents of another’s tweet. And then people started losing their jobs, or couldn’t get jobs, or couldn’t get into schools, all because of a view expressed on twitter that was considered beyond the bounds of ‘appropriate.’ Nowadays, we don’t hear that phrase much anymore, but too many people still operate as if social media does not have consequences, which it does, even if it isn’t felt instantly.

I have had many a conversation with my 12-year old about the implications of what he shares and how that will shape perceptions of him going forward. It is a little sad that he has to think about what his posts say about him as a human being, but that is the world he is growing up in. And this includes the language that he uses and how he uses it, while still learning how to use language. But I am an advocate for setting one’s own standards and setting them high, especially when it comes to how we use language, and, unfortunately for my children, they have to live with that consequence.

Which brings me to another definition that was often bandied around on Twitter: ‘Grammar Nazis’. According to knowyourmeme.com, “Grammar Nazi or Grammar Police refers to someone who habitually corrects grammar and / or spelling mistakes made by others in conversation, both on and offline. In most cases, the term carries a negative connotation of either being a buzz killer who ruins a good joke by getting too technical or a n00b who is gullible enough to be irritated by a Grammar Trap, an intentional use of incorrect grammar for the purpose of trolling.”

I won’t get into my discomfort with the flippant use of the word Nazi considering history but one of the things that appealed to me about Twitter, in its early years, was how it forced you to be clear and succinct in expressing views in 140 characters. And yes, I was one of those who balked at the doubling of the character count to 280 and then proceeded to take advantage of the increase. And yes, I acknowledge that I make a living from putting words together so learning how to work with language is important to me, but I also believe that, whether we like it or not, it is something we all need to do.

So much of our interaction is words on a screen, whether it is social media, instant messaging, emails or text messages, for the few that still send them, of which I am one, albeit occasionally. Misunderstanding, conflict, awkwardness and, tension regularly arise out of how the recipient interprets the words without body language and vocal tone to work with. The blurring of the lines between the meaning of words and how subjective we are in defining words also creates less than pleasant interactions.

As a consequence of this, I believe language is a tool that we all need to learn how to use, whichever language we want to communicate in. Am I so-called Grammar Police? Well, I do tend to correct people, usually in private, to their chagrin. Do I make spelling and grammatical errors? Yes, I am human. I would like to think, however, that I get better at it every day.  And I always try to remember that “Words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you” (KushAndWisdom) and “Words are the model, words are the tools, words are the boards, words are the nails” (Richard Rhodes).

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