But the ability to convey tone and emotion through text, without resorting to illustration, is one of the key challenges of writing. It’s what makes someone a good writer rather than an effective artist or illustrator. And though emoticons may make it easier to convey different moods without much effort, they have limitations of their own. “You couldn’t communicate only with emoticons,” linguist John McWhorter wrote in an email. “You have to know what you’re talking about, what happened, when and so on. Emoticons don’t do that.”
Alice Robb for the New Republic unleashed another “kids these days” piece of clickbait in the name of grammarians and assorted fuddie-duddies everywhere. It must be easy to pen essays decrying an entire generation for being unable to covey emotion without illustration while having your piece lovingly bookended by nice stock photos, with a generic font on well-designed web pages. Indeed, the tone of the piece is actually softened by its surroundings and comfortably corporate setting. Robb’s division between “text” and “image” belongs to a neverland where typography and design were never considered important. Taken out of original context, McWhorter’s quote takes on new levels of no-duh-ness. People communicate with emoticons specifically because they are communicating with people who don’t need significant amounts of additional context. To say you couldn’t communicate with emoticons alone is so obvious as to be nonsense, and Robb failed to do her source any favors by shifting the quote to make such an obvious point against whippersnapper straw-people. But of course, a good grammarian will rely on the writing vs. talking defense: we normally don’t talk the way we write or vise-versa. But even then poor speaking skills and habits happen. Like emoticons, but still different, the use of vocal tics like “like” and “um” are primarily emotive, adding another layer of commentary and interpretation to otherwise dry text:
We should admire, not belittle, kids who use it [like]. Far from being banished from polite or public dialogue, their discourse markers should mark our own—they should be imported as a sign of a meticulous grasp of the truth that there is no settled truth, that all narration is subjective, that every account must always be qualified.
Adam Gopnik, The Conscientiousness of Kidspeak
Gopnik maybe overstates his case, but his defense is worthwhile. We are, after all, talking about people who are still growing up, still learning. Perhaps once they’ve been through a college grinder and gotten a good n’ proper learnin’ then they too can wield weighty words and wordplay against each other in linguistic battles of the wits as Robb would so welcome. But their innate sensitivity might get lost. It is fine to promote the use of “proper” communicative skills that are designed to carry maximum symbolic frieght to the widest number of possible readers. That is the essence of “proper” grammar: to give agreed upon guidelines for broad communications. That is, of course, not all all what texting with emoticons or a face to face conversation is about. It is a wild misplacement of communicative rules as a form of social unease:
Labov’s experiment suggests that punctilious attention to “proper” usage may come from a place of insecurity. The extreme form of this is hypercorrection, in which “a real or imagined grammatical rule is applied in an inappropriate context, so that an attempt to be ‘correct’ leads to an incorrect result.”
Katy Waldman, Does This Make Me Sound Insecure?
Robb’s essay is a form of hypercorrection. Doubly, as it is posted on Mashable, the internet k-hole of silliness for digestible smartness. When you are stuck pretending that text and text alone rules like Britannia, it is easy to forget the small things that make interpersonal communication go, both visually and otherwise. I pose my last case: a girl who smiled in a selfie at Auschwitz. If there ever would be a story that raises the ire of the stiff-backed everywhere, it is this one. But again, what is missed is that the harshest critics took what was once a small, personal communication by a young woman as a media event, as something that should follow “the rules” of propriety and journalistic excellence. They noxiously misapplied rules that had no standing in order to pass judgement:
By being completely ignorant of how some would interpret her vague digital communication (the only thing that’s obvious from her photo is that she’s happy and she’s at Auschwitz. The rest is not clear), she’s influenced a global conversation on the limits of self-involvement. Some have come to her defense, reminding us all that she’s just a kid with a dead dad who shared her love of history.
The only reason why Breanna is on the receiving end of so much hatred is because she had the audacity to smile at a concentration camp. I hate to break it to you all, but Breanna Mitchell smiling at Auschwitz is not the worst thing that ever happened at Auschwitz. I dare say that it’s not even in the top 5,000.
Dave Schilling, In Defense of Taking Selfies in Depressing Places
This is a call for a new ethics of grammar. For ignoring the rules when they don’t need to be applied. Otherwise, we will simply end up sounding like this:
It’s no surprise that millennials have embraced emoji and their pixelated cousins, emoticons. Ambiguous, superficial and cute, they’re perfectly suited to a generation that sends Hallmark e-cards ironically, circulates step-by-step guides to “being deep,” and dismisses “deep meaningful conversations” as “DMC’s.”
Don’t worry, the kids are having contextually rich DMCs. It is our job as educators, as adults, and as people who honestly care to model good grammar when need be. More importantly, we also model ethical behavior that doesn’t overstep bounds, pass poor judgement, or cause undo harm.