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For parents who care about the comma

Clark Whelton, who was a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, has written a fascinating article for the Winter 2011 issue of the City Journal.

sex and relationships Updated: Feb 27, 2011 00:37 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Clark Whelton, who was a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, has written a fascinating article for the Winter 2011 issue of the City Journal. (You can read the full piece if you go to org/ 2011/ 21_1_snd-american-english.html)

He pins down and elaborates on the “linguistic virus that [infects] spoken language in the late 20th century”. How does this virus make its presence felt in speech? Whelton explains that you can tell someone has it when she punctuates every sentence with ‘like’ (“He was, like, afraid”); when answers sound like questions because you end declarative sentences with an uptempo, interrogative inflection (“Where are you going? To Egypt?”); when you speak in “self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes”; when you recreate past incidents by narrating both sides of a conversation (“So I’m like, ‘Want to, like, see a movie?’ And he goes, ‘No way.’ And I go…”)

Whelton calls this the storming of the grammar palace by the linguistic rabble. It might sound like cultural elitism (and there is nothing wrong with a bit of cultural elitism, I think), but he establishes a link between this linguistic coup to the dramatic fall in writing standards in American colleges, as well as to a dwindling of the capability of abstract thought and precise expression.

Dating the beginning of this phenomenon to the mid- to late-1980s, Whelton writes: “Undergraduates [seem] to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes – using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés — [are] transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite.”

Given the nature of American cultural hegemony, the phenomenon has travelled swiftly and widely across the world, much like Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. Every day, in our country, we see its manifestation in schools, colleges and offices. Sometimes, especially when talking to young/youngish people, one gasps in relief to discover that someone does not speak like this.

Whelton was talking about fresh graduates, and he discussed the matter with a professor who told him that while immature speech patterns used to be eradicated by teachers in the ninth grade, now anything is acceptable in high school. As a result, when students turn up at college, they seem to have been “juvenilised”.

In India, teachers can wage this war against infantilisation only if they themselves have the arsenal to do it. (And, often, I am sorry to report, they don’t.) The move to rid children of this virus ought to begin at home, and begin early.

Parents who care about language and grammar and sounding and writing like literate citizens of this planet, who abhor clichés and the sway they have over our lives and culture, who want their children growing up to understand how the fuzziness and cringe-inducing nature of marketing jargon has slaughtered a language and, therefore, learn to stay well away from it, should start as soon as they can.

If it sounds as though I am proselytizing, it’s because I am. As I said, there is nothing wrong with cultural elitism – nothing at all, especially if it is used to keep obfuscation and imprecision in check.