I still have a few clothing items from the mid-80s. These are not what you might expect (except for the fingerless gloves, of course). What I’ve kept from my 80s wardrobe (not including accessories) are mainly some items of menswear: a green striped pajama top, a vividly patterned button-down, and two suit coat vests. I also have an odd velvety multi-patterned vest that is probably from the 70s. All of these items I bought at various thrift stores in the Milwaukee area, and as I peruse my closet, I’ve asked myself why they are still with me.
One of these reasons is sheer sentimentality. When the 80s began, I was in fifth grade; when the decade ended, I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. In those years, I began to get a sense of who I might be as an adult person. And when I think of those early stages of self-discovery, I think of two things: clothing and writing. I can articulate the goals of my high school wardrobe quite easily. I wanted to stand out and I wanted to please myself. I wanted to take risks (though now I wish I’d taken more). This resulted in a blended look that was part vintage/thrift store, part alternative, and part not easily classified. I have such fond memories of putting together outfits and trying interesting things with makeup—again, conventions rather than rules. These few items that I’ve kept have spent a lot of time in the back of my closet over the years, but I’ve recently started to integrate them back into my wardrobe. So exciting! So many new possibilities!
But why do we keep what we do? And where do new things come from? And here is the connection with language use: the very same thing happens. Growing up when I did, I’ve seen so many changes in how we communicate. When I went to UW-Green Bay, I took my electric typewriter (and my Duran Duran posters). I remember the world before email and texting very clearly. When we first started communicating in this way, we didn’t know the “right” way to do it. So we adapted many of the conventions from other ways that we communicated as well as developing new ones. For example, think about the still evolving use of textspeak.
So what do we do as we’re figuring out new things? Try things out! Take risks! See how they feel! A year or so ago, I read this interesting article in The New Republic called “The Period is Pissed” about not ending text messages with a period because it can be perceived as terse. “In most written language,” writer Ben Crair tells us, “the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive.” With every new mode of communication, how we’re working with tone changes. I really wasn’t sure about not end-stopping at first, but I decided to try it out. And you know what? It felt amazing.
Experimenting with this was actually one of the most epiphanic moments I’ve had while thinking about grammar and usage: end-stopping was one of the few choices that I tended to make in all writing contexts, and suddenly it wasn’t. If there wasn’t something that I would do in every situation, then grammar certainly isn’t the clear-cut and uncompromising thing that so many people believe. It’s simply about knowing when to make the choice.
I still have my fingerless gloves from the 80s. And now that they’re making a reappearance—for easier texting—I have several more pairs. I can’t wait to see what comes back around next in a different form.
I feel that sixteen-year-old Jen would like this blog. She (I) very much wishes that I (she) had been brave enough to go for the cotton candy pink hair that I (we?) desperately wanted in high school. So take the occasional risk in something you wear or write! You might unknowingly encourage others to do the same, and also, you’ll make her (me) very happy.