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I Wrote a Thousand Word Essay, Posted It On Wiffli… You’ve Probably Never Heard of It

by Jason Edwards

When it comes to language, I am a descriptivist. I am as descriptivist as fuck. I am a recovering prescriptivist, someone whose identity was wrapped around language skills and judging/correcting everyone else’s lack thereof. Then I got ahold of some Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Foucault and Derrida, my four-horseman of the post-structural apocalypse. Rules are for tools. E.B. White was a buffoon. Ditto Strunk. Funk & Wagnall? That’s me after a bean burrito and all horny. Are you following the gist of my rhetoric, friends?

But lately—and you knew this was coming, because there’s always controversy—there’s some things that have been getting my linguistic dander up. I’ve been trying to read more blogs these days, eschewing the news-readers. And maybe they were always like this, but the level of writing sophistication in them is somewhat lacking. Yes, yes, my own blog is a great font of that. But I didn’t know it was so pervasive.

And mostly it’s from people trying so hard to be cool. Here’s one, in an article about the Facebook Stalker App:

“You meet a cute somebody at a concert, you’re like, ‘Hey, we should be Facebook friends,’ and they’re like ‘OMG, totes!’ [Facebook quietly unveils ‘stalking app‘]

Totes? Seriously? Look, I like Joss Whedon as much as the next man. Indeed, I think Whedon is a genius, a master of dialogue. He’d have his characters speak in as-yet-unheard abbreviations, sure. But “Totes” is not Whedon. “Totes” is someone trying to be Whedon, trying to sound young and hip without actually using the young and hip vocabulary currently in existence this week. Sort of the same as if I, for example, tried to invent some new Michael Jackson-like dance moves (I’m 5’8” and 195 lbs and white, if that completes the visual there for ya).

Here’s another one:

And, obvi, buy at your local second-hand or indie bookstore. [Missing an Opportunity to Peacock with Literature]

Obvi is short for “obviously.” I had to tell you that since you might have though, like I did, that it had something to do with a Russian Obi Wan Kenobi impersonator working as a gynecologist in India.

So the latent prescriptivist in me is trying to get out, to reassert itself. It wants to stomp onto my front language porch and tell these damn kids to get off my language lawn. At the same time, my descriptivist is nodding smugly. Reap what you sow, grandpa.

I love using the word “irregardless.” I’ve championed “hopefully” as a sentence-starter for years. I’ll split infinitives like Lincoln split logs and drop prepositions like Snoop Dogg drops bombs and mix master metaphors and run on sentences? Run-on sentences and sentences without verbs? Run on sentences without verbs and needless repetition? That’s my bread and butter.

But this Totes and Obvi nonsense… why is this making me so upset? I’ll tell you why.

I’m a language hipster. A lipster.

I never really shed my better-than-you attitude, did I? I just switched it from “you don’t talk right, idiot” to “there is no right, idiot.” And then these young adults posing as teenagers make up some words to show how cool they are, and I get mad, and I can’t decide which vindictive to hurl at them.

Hipsters latch onto seemingly “fringe” subcultures and wear their decals as a second skin, without really immersing or fully sublimating themselves to any culture at all. Or so say the critics. My alleged “descriptivism” is just as shallow as that, an excuse to make fun of “mainstream idiots” who don’t know any better than to toss around “language rules” as a means to criticize the funny way I dress (I mean write).

Actually, I’m just jealous. No one reads what I write, and I rationalize by saying it’s because they don’t understand it, while the writer of Totes and Obvi have thousands of readers. Sell outs!

Fine, I accept it. I’ll put on my language skinny jeans, my language keffiyeh, and get on my language fixed-gear and head over to the Mark Leyner café. Pierce my eyebrow with House of Leaves and write poems that are sincerely about how much I hate poetry.

In an article on Slate [False Fronts in the Language Wars], Stephen Pinker said the war between the so-called prescriptivsts and the so-called descriptivists was a phony dichotomy. He went on to explain why, but I couldn’t be bothered to read it. I mean it was on Slate for crying out loud. I read Language Log.

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