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Lost in Translation

In ancient times, the Egyptians, lacking an advanced alphabet, used a combination of pictures to express their ideas. That might amuse us in this day and age, but it seems that the Egyptians were actually ahead of their time. Teenagers have now adopted a similar system of communication.

George Bernard Shaw once commented that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” I’m probably not the only father who feels separated from his teenagers by a common language. At least, I think it’s a common language. I refer not to the English language, per se, but to what has come to be known as “text.” For those uninitiated to “text” or “texting” (and you know who you are), it could be defined as a way of communicating by computer or handheld device which employs letters, numbers, symbols, or a combination of these. To account for this revolution, even the word “text” has undergone an etymological transformation. The word used to be a noun, as in: “Students, please study the text for next week’s exam.” It is now more often used as a verb, as in: “The way those jeans were ripped was, like, so cool; text me later about them,” or “I’ll be in Poly Sci class, so I’ll have my ringer off. Just text me.”

Perhaps texting is the result of a generation of children who, faced with the prospect of taking years of English grammar courses, have decided instead to “opt out” of the system. Why study things like singular-versus-plural and subject-verb agreement when you can simply text and do an end run around the problem? Texting is heavenly bliss for the syntactically unsure. Like much of modern art, it is indefensible, but it is so bizarre that it transcends acceptable methods of critique. For instance, how can you “correct” expressions that contain an amorphous combination of dashes, parentheses, ampersands, equal signs, and numbers? Though they congratulate themselves on the creativity of text and symbolic expression, teenagers need to realize that this hieroglyphic form of communication is demonstrably austere. For instance, the English language contains hundreds of synonyms for the words “happy” and “unhappy.” But in text, there are precious few. In fact, there are essentially two: :) and :( .

Parents are criticized for being unable to learn the language of their teenagers. I might stand guilty as charged, but when you write a would-be sentence which contains a happy face, a dollar sign, and the symbol for Abraham Lincoln, am I the one who can’t communicate? I have actually had to google certain expressions to know what my children are trying to write, and I’m guessing that if you’re my age (forty-something but, in my children’s eyes, pushing octogenarian status awfully fast), some of you fathers have done the same thing.

Though our linguistic integrity might feel compromised, we parents all have to learn this new odd dialect if we wish to communicate with our children. And if you’re a writer wishing to attract a younger audience of readers, you’re going to have to go along to get along. If Shakespeare wrote today, few would understand the sentence: “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” It might be simpler for the Bard to write: “R, ? R U?” What it lacks in beauty, it makes up for in brevity.

Like it or not, we live in a text world. Case in point: the other day, I went with Athanasius to buy a smartphone. When you buy one, you are asked: “Do you plan on texting?” Not only do I not plan on texting, I hope that I am never desperate enough to “text.” I look at it this way: there is poetry; there is prose; and then there is “text.” Texting is among the lowest forms of communication. (I would say “the lowest” but I’ve worked in politics.) As opposed to standard typing, which employs ten fingers, texting is normally done exclusively with thumbs, and that’s appropriate considering the results.

People today like to advise others that they must “think outside the box.” However, if the “box” is the place where grammatically-correct composition takes place, count me in. I like the box. I like the world of predicate nominatives, subordinate clauses, and proper punctuation. Reading “text” for any length of time makes me want to curl up with a good grammar book for relief. Sure, it may look a little strange reading Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition over a cup of decaf at the local java shop, but I’m comfortable with that.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe it’s time we all took a refresher course on sentence diagramming. Maybe a good rule of thumb (no pun intended) is: “If you can’t diagram it, don’t text it.” Can you imagine teaching a course on diagramming text? It would make for an interesting combination with the fact that teachers are often discouraged from giving the conventional A, B, C, D, and F grades these days. Teachers might return homework with notes such as, “William, the semicolon with a hyphen and a parenthesis means ‘winking’ which is a verb, so it goes to the right of :) . Try not to make that mistake again or I’ll be forced to give you a :( .”

About John Clark

John Clark is a homeschooling father, a speechwriter, an online course developer for Seton Home Study School, and a weekly blogger for The National Catholic Register. His latest book is “How to be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford a Decent Cape.”
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