Literacy? Pfft. Who Cares About That?

In a country where most people spend an enormous amount of time online—reading and writing—the general lack of literacy is shocking. Not just the nitty-gritty of grammar and spelling, but basic reading comprehension and writing ability. As in, knowing what words mean and putting them in an order that makes sense.

Now, I don’t expect everyone to be as particular about words as I am. I realize that not everyone would enjoy a leisurely afternoon of phonics games and sentencing diagramming. And not everyone would rewrite a three-sentence email 15 times until it was both pithy and precise.

But… words do matter!

To paraphrase the Mad Hatter, saying what you mean is not the same thing as meaning what you say. And you can’t say what you mean if you don’t know what words mean.

Luckily, we live in the Information Age! Have a question? Google can bring you 85 bazillion answers in seconds. Don’t know what a word means? Google will tell you. So will,, countless dictionary apps, etc. etc. etc. There are even games to expand your vocabulary—for free!

Slang? Not the problem.

Look, there will always be new slang. No cap. You stan Beyonce. Your pizza is bussin’. Your drip shows you understood the assignment. And everything I just wrote is cheugy, or will be in a minute. When I complain about literacy, I’m not bothered by slang. Or… not exactly. Slang is part of how language evolves. Always has been, always will be. The slang that works will stick around and become mainstream. The slang that doesn’t will still have life in niche crowds.

As far as I’m concerned, keeping up with slang is a language skill. BUT–that doesn’t mean you can throw out all your non-slang communication. At least, not if you want to be understood by a wider audience. Mad props if you can switch between slang and “proper” English. It’s basically learning to speak multiple languages.

The problem is when you don’t actually know the definition of slang words. If your friends get you, great. If others don’t, it’s up to you to either explain what you mean in more commonly understood words or not be upset when you’re dismissed as not knowing what you’re talking about.

Now what?

Okay, what if you believe me and realize that your literacy could use some work? Here are some quick tips:

  • Learn how to use commonly confused words, like there/their/they’re, lose/loose, or to/too/two
  • Reread your texts, comments, etc. before hitting send. Fix your typos.
  • Give context. No one knows what you were thinking before you started typing
  • Use a dictionary to check a word’s spelling *and* meaning. Bonus points for using a thesaurus to learn new words.
  • Pay attention to the spelling and grammar in news articles and books. Learn from it.

When we throw out our standards for literacy—valuing street smarts over book learning—we’re throwing out our abilities to share complex ideas and put together coherent arguments. In a world where so much of our communication is online, value the ability to read and write well.

/end rant

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