Thinking Ahead

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We’re told that people who hope to have fulfilling careers now and in the coming decades must be adaptable. That’s because technologies such as the internet and artificial intelligence are changing the kinds of jobs for which college is intended to prepare students and the skills they’ll need to do a given job well.

Consider your own job: You probably use a course management system, though such things barely existed 20 years ago. No doubt you’re also familiar with Wikipedia, Twitter, digital textbooks, blogs, Prezi, plagiarism detection systems, hyperlinking, and so on. Technology keeps shaking things up, and technologists warn that the pace of change can only increase.

Rapid change is expected in part because artificial intelligence has become capable of doing many things—identifying individuals in photos, driving and parking a car, and learning from experience, for instance—that once were the exclusive province of people. AI continues to encroach on, or assist with, many increasingly highly skilled kinds of work. So students must be prepared to have all kinds of innovations thrown at them throughout their careers. They will need to view change as a constant.

And then there’s “correct English,” which changes at a glacial pace. The fundamental structures of English change hardly at all. New nouns and verbs and adjectives may be coined every day, but they’re still nouns and verbs and adjectives, doing the jobs they’ve always done. New prepositions and conjunctions, however, scarcely ever enter English—these are considered “closed” classes of words. Pronouns, too, had long been considered a closed class, though new gender-neutral forms like “ze,” “nem,” “vis,” and the singular “they” are vying with one another to join the mainstream. Even a “glacial pace” of change is speeding up, figuratively as well as literally.

Of course, it’s a good thing to be conversant with the norms of traditional prose, because these makes centuries’ worth of writing accessible. We can, for example, read and enjoy Shakespeare. But contemporary literature is ever more inclusive, celebrating ever more registers of English. A few of many possible examples would be the fiction of Jesmyn Ward and Jhumpa Lahiri, and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

On the nonfiction side, traditional norms allow us to admire, for example, Charles Darwin’s insights in On the Origin of Species—even as we might wish he’d been able to write it in blog form and post videos of species as he came across them on his travels. (The first edition of Origin had just one illustration, a simple branching diagram.)

The norms of scholarly writing by now have diverged far from those for literature—journal articles, for instance, intentionally rely on the passive voice and colorless, if precise, terminology. Further, the vocabularies of scholarly and technical literature are expanding as rapidly as the fields of research: nanotechnology, mesosociology, biomedical engineering, artificial neural networks, and so on. Most of the world’s scientists and engineers and so on write in English—but often it’s not an English that people outside a small circle can understand.

Even the range of genres available to us has broadened, largely thanks to the technology of the internet. Online, multimodal compositions are coming to be the norm, with text paired with photos, videos, interactive graphics, and so on.

I doubt we can even guess how advances in technology will change our language in the near future and how we use it. Will “it’s” get folded into the spelling “its” because software has trouble distinguishing when to use each form, or will the software catch up with educated human understanding? Will the preferred pronunciations of words become the ones that Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant recognize most readily? Will grammatically correct phrases that a grammar checker underlines come to be considered incorrect?

But those are just fine points. Taking a longer and wider view, I remember a U.K. ESL specialist explaining to me almost 20 years ago that speech to text automation was coming along, automated translation software was coming along, text to speech was coming along too—and pretty soon the three processes were likely to become one sequence and we’d be able to converse with almost anyone, each of us in our preferred language. That ability is now tantalizingly close. Once simultaneous translation becomes widely available, it’s bound to shake many things up. And that’s only an example of the kinds of technologies on the horizon that have the potential to profoundly affect our lives, our work, and our use of language.

What does all this suggest for the present and future of English comp? To me, it suggests that students need to know that there’s no one correct way of writing anymore, if there ever was one. Certainly, there are better and worse ways—better and worse registers and tones—in different genres, for different audiences.

Would your students benefit from an assignment like the following? Let’s imagine a surprising archaeological find was recently made near your campus. They might write it up in three to five different genres—maybe as a tweet; as if they had taken part in or watched the dig and are telling a friend about it; as a brief local news story; as a report for an archaeology wiki or blog; and as an academic paper based on firsthand sources or the outline for such a paper.
An assignment like this may not do much to get your students ready for changes to the language and technology yet to come. But this one might help them better understand how diverse is the range of registers and media and genres already available to them—and how adaptable they will probably need to be in their writing.

Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at or comment below!

Image Credit:  Pixabay Image 2228610 by Seanbatty, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine.