A child’s first sentence is a pivotal moment in her development when she is recognized as now capable of communicating complete thoughts.
In an age of emojis, memes, and reaction gifs, are complete sentences becoming passé? Do outmoded forms of writing deserve to die? Or could there be room for more than one kind of writing? On this week’s show, we’ll discuss the death of the sentence with Professor Jan Miezkowski, author of Crises of the Sentence.
The Internet is constantly generating new forms of communication, and with them, new creative opportunities. Meme templates let anyone add a personal twist to a shared joke; emojis and reaction gifs re-contextualize images to give them new meanings in conversation; and tweets encourage efficient writing that gets straight to the point.
Internet communication also has the uncanny power to rip words and images from their original context in a way that alters their meanings. This had great comedic potential, as seen in the Facebook group Science Diagrams that Look Like Shitposts. And it seems harmless when a piece of text—a quote from a famous author, an anonymized text message, or someone’s post on social media—is passed around as an inspirational or funny image.
But unlimited ability to re-contextualize words and images can be dangerous. Consider how cartoonist Matt Furie’s character Pepe the Frog became a symbol of the far right. (Furie ended up suing to have the image removed from the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer.) Or consider the way that one tweet, taken out of context, can make a person a target for social media bullying.
There are also some things that new ways of writing can’t achieve, and that traditional forms do better. For developing a complex argument, an essay is better than a tweet. (Of course, there are people who will just post a long essay as a sequence of tweets!) The ambiguity of images isn’t always an asset; if you’re trying to express a philosophical argument, or giving directions on how to plan a wedding, then using words instead of images, or alongside them, will help you pin down a definite meaning.
It’s worth bearing in mind that not all Internet trends are new. Playful acronyms like LOL or FOMO are trendy now, but they were also trendy in the 1830s (which might be where we get the word “OK”). Humorous photographs of cats, complete with silly captions, date back to at least the turn of the 20th Century. And of course, quoting out of context was invented long before the era of the Internet, even if the Internet makes it especially easy.
In spite of these qualifications, I think that genuinely new things are happening to the English language in the digital age. Does this mean that the sentence is dying—or just changing? Tune in this week for our conversation with Jan.