Has English Literature and Language Degenerated Over Time?

by Lucy Zhang, Age 16, USA

Artwork by Erin Harvey


jaBlog Has English Language DeterioratedIn English, my class was required to read chapter nine of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. For those of you who don’t know, Wollstonecraft was a feminist author in the 18th century who wrote the aforementioned essay in response to the French revolution. Her writing, to say the least, was sophisticated and quite hard to comprehend.

The first line of the chapter was, “From the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind.” I read that line at least seven times. Alone, the line sounded quite beautiful, with impressive diction and effective comparison. Regardless, I spent a while trying to figure out what the subject of the sentence actually was. As I read further, I concluded that Wollstonecraft had never heard of sentence variety. Every sentence was about three lines long, forcing my brain to work a little harder just to understand the message, never mind analyze the writing.

My class felt the same way. We came to a consensus that Wollstonecraft’s writing was not concise at all. She used too much flowery language, dancing around her point. On the other hand, our English teacher claimed that Wollstonecraft was an ingenious writer. My class’s inability to read Wollstonecraft was apparently because we were used to “texting” language.

I rarely text and hardly use emoticons and “LOLs.” However, I couldn’t help but think that my teacher’s statement had some validity. Maybe English literature and language has degenerated over time. Books of the modern 21st century are vastly different from those of the 18th century. Popular novels that we read today, such as The Hunger Games and even Stephen King novels, are so much easier to understand. Even feminist essays written in the past decade are easier to understand than Wollstonecraft’s essay. Is it just a change in writing style, or did our writing culture deteriorate as time passed?

Critics who condescend toward modern literature only highlight the “bad” writing. In reality, we have only read the best classics from the past, such as Wollstonecraft’s essays, Emerson’s writings, and Shakespeare’s plays. Likewise, today’s writers are also producing great literary works, albeit fewer than the less impressive ones. However, that does not change the fact that the language, tone, and diction of modern writing differs greatly from that of classic authors.

I think it is simply a cultural change. It is undeniably true that we tend to try and appeal more to the masses. With the abundance of new technology that makes communication easier, who can deny that? A writer doesn’t just want to earn fans in his or her country when there is an entire world to address simply with the click of a button. As to the shift in language, we have to remember that in the past, only rich men were exposed to education and the opportunity to read. Now, books target children and teens. The tones of juvenile fiction books are different from that of adult fiction books. The change in writing style over time was inevitable.

There are good and bad literary works of every time period. If Wollstonecraft read a Stephen King novel, I would like to think that she would be thoroughly befuddled.  I don’t believe Wollstonecraft is necessarily “out of my league.” She’s merely “out of my century.”


Lucy Zhang is a 16 year old writer from the United States. She is an aspiring poet and writer whose literary dragon still needs some training.


One comment on “Has English Literature and Language Degenerated Over Time?

  1. rachael m

    The relative prolixity of writing has less to do with any supposed degeneration in the English language than with target audience. Something like The Hunger Games is written simply because it is targeted towards normal teenagers, who in every age have, generally, less vocabulary and reading comprehension than the educated adult. However, if one were to read modern academic and philosophical discursive writing – Foucault comes to mind – one would frequently find text even denser than Wollstonecraft’s. Academic writing just assumes higher levels of critical thinking and of technical familiarity with the subject matter.

    That being said, I would agree that popular writing of recent years has lost its flair for the flowery – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think anyone’s arguing that Slaughterhouse-Five doesn’t have literary merit because the language used is simple and straightforward. Literary trends constantly evolve. It’s one of the cooler things about writing.

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