I have only recently entered the realm of social media, and while I have been raised on English literature and lengthy novels, I have found a new love in the language of journalism and social media. My diction is now vitalized with action-packed verbs, and I enunciate exactly what I mean in 600 words or fewer, whereas before I exhausted my sentences with multi-syllabic words. And though my diction is much simpler, I have not sloughed in my writing, but rather have gained an appreciation for a condensed version of the English language.
But I am miffed whenever I hear discussions about social media eroding our language, especially through Facebook and texting. One of the main critics of this discussion is Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, who says that we now read newspapers on a fourth-grade level. When once we knew about 20,000 words in our English language, perhaps from the peak of our college days, we now use only 2,000 a week, even though a million other words in our language lie waiting for us to use them. As I compare her statistics to the length of our sentences and the precision of our vocabulary, particularly in journalism, I agree that she’s right. And yet I do not find social media to impede our use of the English language. If anything, it has taught me to pack a punch in my words.
From when I first arrived at my university, I’ve been taught to sharpen my diction and tighten my syntax. In the student newspaper, my paragraphs shortened from five sentences down to three or one. It was the length that mattered, my professors said. Anything longer would lose my readers. As I became Feature Editor, I truly learned the importance of brevity. In fact, as I was writing headlines and photo captions, I learned it’s not the body of the article that people first read, but rather the headlines and captions that give readers the gist of what they want to know.
As I’ve shortened my own sentences, my academic diction has been replaced by what McEntyre might call a fourth-grade level of vocabulary, yet I have by no means degraded my journalistic writing, only altered my prose to reflect our natural rhythm of speech. I’ve noticed that in daily conversation, we often never speak more than ten or fifteen syllables in one breath, and only in our academic writing do we extend our breaths to about twenty syllables with words such as demonstrative, pedagogical, and constructionism.
These are the words most readers would dismiss, and although I have no problem with shortening my words, I remember McEntyre’s critique and see how we have unwittingly altered our diction to match the increased pace of our lives. As we’ve moved from walking on lanes to speeding on highways, we’re constantly being distracted by various forms of social media. Matt Richtel, a New York Times journalist, says that in general, we’ve cut our attention span because of our addiction to a chemical called dopamine, which emits adrenaline every time we receive a text message or other digital notification (“Digital Overload”). It’s like we’re drawn to the excitement of getting a message—like opening a present, something just for us—that propels us to check our phones or log onto Facebook nearly every hour every day.
Even though critics denounce this technology for weakening our prose, I see that it’s a matter of choice and discipline whether we choose to browse Facebook or pore through a book. Our digitalized culture is not necessarily a bad thing, but merely a reflection of our times. It’s a matter of habit regarding what we choose to write and how we choose to write it. We ourselves cause the laziness when texting, not the technology. We only excuse ourselves by saying that Twitter restricts our messages to 140 characters or fewer. But to get back on track to reading longer prose, we can train ourselves, if we choose, to spend a few hours on books or read one novel after the next. I, for one, choose to continue on social media, because I see here the prospects of establishing my presence as a writer and making myself a more vivid writer.