10 April 2008

The end of eloquence

That's the name of a CWA panel I wanted to attend but decided to stay home and take care of this chest cold instead. The End of Eloquence is one of the panel titles I've been pondering all week: I am in this funny position, as I straddle Generations X and Y, of feeling like the younger folks just don't understand dinosaurs like me, in the usage and grammar departments especially. I do a great deal of writing and reading and feel that we must keep our linguistic standards high, which I don't see in the editing of a lot of the books I read. So that's my take on the meaning of the panel title at this moment: People getting in their own way by not learning and following the rules of grammar. And that includes the conference promoters, too and all their "over 200 participants" signs. No one is exempt from the red pen of ... what? It should stop being shameful to make these errors. All you need to know is that too many of those and people like me stop paying attention. You lose credibility with educated people. (I recently did a little editing job for some computer game developers and itemized credibility-building in my list of services provided.)

But in this world, I must turn and ask myself, as if I were another member of that discussion panel, in this world where people learn English from hip-hop videos and Hollywood movies, who's to say what the rules are? How can a single set of standards describe, much less prescribe, how people use the English language? Do the opinions of usage snobs matter any more?

I take the point that there can be no one true standard in a language that is spread so far and thin. Yet what I feel is the strength of my own desire to resist the tide of mediocrity. Like I said, I mark up a lot of library books. Another instance is how people drive. People's driving skills are getting worse in part because I believe people are not adequately instructed on how to drive nor on how to behave in traffic (me, too). Are people taught any longer to count "one-thousand-one" and so on for every ten miles of speed on the highway to calculate the safest distance behind the car in front of them? (You start counting when the car in front of you passes a fixed marker, like a sign. At fifty miles per hour, you should have five seconds until you pass the same sign.) Do people learn to take turns properly at four-way stops? So many people these days don't seem to know how to handle traffic obstacles, nor grammatical ones.

And does anyone really care except us dinosaurs? If I were to build credibility workshops, would they come? Maybe a few writers, grantwriters, sure. But I would guess most other people don't have the time or the motivation or the desire to learn the arcane details of the English grammatical system. I hope I'm wrong.

We must remember too that while the end of eloquence is a pessimistic title, there's plenty to be optimistic about. Despite its occasional preciousness ("honest to blog"), one of the charms of Diablo Cody's dialogue in the movie Juno is its blast of fresh air into the colloquial room. Like other artists, I admire her nerve in telling it the way she sees it, a gift not everyone has. (Think about it: first you must be able to feel it; then you must be able to synthesize and articulate to others that feeling as a creative expression of your true feelings, without fear of ridicule or retribution. It's a complex set of skills!) And people are seeing that movie and thinking about the way people say things and about what they say. It's a good thing.

Nor am I ready to put any nails in the news industry's coffin just yet. I believe we are in the midst of a sea change in how we think of media right now. Most people don't even realize how much today's ideas about rhetoric, news, and common culture have been affected by comedy (think Jon Stewart and everyone who has made what he does mainstream -- Jeff Greenfield, The Capitol Steps, Will Durst, SNL) and by other independent sources (bloggers, artists, musicians, documentarians, The Simpsons, and many more new-media gadflies). There's an explosion of source material and what we are really going to need from here on out is excellent sifting and sorting capabilities for it all, which brings me back to that dear topic of mine, metadata. It may be that being able to sift and sort and index, that making ourselves Googleable, becomes even more important than one's eloquence level ever will be again.

No comments: