Before I grow old, I hope to collect a trove of love letters. I plan to bundle them up with a green ribbon, and hide them, like a time capsule of vulnerabilities and tender moments stowed away for archeologists to uncover 300 years from now. These words, made tangible by ink on paper, are like evidence that one has lived and loved. There’s magic in words on paper, or carved into stone, that gets lost in translation when reading it on a screen. It’s one thing to read the text of The Declaration of Independence, but it’s another thing entirely to see the actual document in person.
But let’s be real: letters aren’t practical.
My colleague Philip Wegmann makes the case that modern modes of communication are diluting our language, but he’s totally wrong. It’s true, young people send thousands of, probably brief and grammatically awful, text messages a month. As anyone with a Twitter account knows, 140 characters often brings out the worst of us, as commas are tossed aside in order to conserve space. However, 74 percent of millennials say they are totally annoyed at bad grammar, according to a recent Dictionary.com poll. We are also more likely to read books than members of Generation X and Baby Boomers.
Hating on email is a misplaced frustration. The truth is, email is great. It’s simple and easy to manage. As Alexis C. Madrigal explained in The Atlantic, emails are dependable and they’re not going away anytime soon. It’s the least obtrusive way to communicate, and it’s so easy to share files. Am I right?
Email isn’t the bad guy, we are. But curt messages or sloppy grammar aren’t a new problem. Grammar and spelling rules weren’t really standardized until about the eighteenth century. Before then, people made up spellings for words based on what they thought it sounded like, resulting in weird discrepancies everywhere.
Though it may seem that mankind has slowly gotten worse and worse at communicating, that’s not an altogether accurate perception. The letters and documents that have survived from the old days are ones that were carefully preserved or copied a million times because they were important. Paper used to be a precious resource that few people were privileged enough to afford and use in their everyday lives. Thus the writings that have survived the test of time were not how normal people talked or communicated. So normal people communicated probably just as terribly 500 years ago as we do now.
So what to do?
Embrace the brevity. Sure, using a lot of words is fun and helpful to explain exactly what you mean. But it isn’t always necessary. Sometimes an “okay” or “sure” is all you need to read to get things done. Learn to be charming and precise with fewer words.
But don’t give up on writing long, thoughtful letters or emails every now and again. There’s still certainly a place for it—like your significant other’s letter bundle.