In 1978 he was very upset at the decline of the written English language. He blamed the telephone (see below) as the main culprit. Considering how the Internet has trashed the language far more than telephone could ever do (“lol” or “c u l8er” or writing everything in lower or UPPER cAsE), it is neat to read his rant in retrospect.
My subject today is 'The Decline of the Written Word.' If the speech I have written is disjointed and confusing, you will get my point the hard way...
The reason for the decline of the written word - speeches, written articles - is that we, as a people, are writing less and talking more. Because it takes longer to prepare our thoughts on paper, that means we are ad-libbing more, and it also means we are thinking more superficially. An ad-lib has its place, but not ad nauseam...
The greatest cultural villain of our times has a motherly image: Ma Bell. The telephone company. Instead of writing, people are calling; instead of communicating, they're 'staying in touch.'
And it's going to get worse: phone vision is on the way. We have seen what happened to the interpersonal correspondence of love in the past generation. The purple passages of prose, and tear-stained pages of the love letter - that's gone now. It has become the heavy breathing, grunts, and 'like, I mean, y'know, wow' of the love call. The next stage, with the visual dimension, will not even require a loud sign: we can just wave at each other to say hello; wiggle our fingers to express affection; raise our eyebrows to ask, 'What's new?,' get a shrug in reply, and sign off with a smile and a wink.
Then Safire gives four steps for the 'salvation of the English language'
1) First, "First drafts are usually stupid"
2) "Second, reject the notion that honesty and candor demand that you 'let it all hang out.' That's not honesty; that's intellectual laziness."
3) "Third, never forget that you own the telephone; the telephone does not own you. " He continues, "When I was in the Nixon administration, my telephone was tapped - I had been associating with known journalists. So I took an interest in the instrument itself. Turn it upside down; you will notice a lever that says 'louder.' Turn it away from the direction of louder. That is the direction of emancipation."
4) In typical Safire fashion, he then 'pretends' to ad-lib a fourth step as if he is talking to himself. Eventually he says it is demanding speakers use "words full of meaning, binding thoughts together with purpose, holding promise of understandable progress."
Will the English language survive ‘cyber English’? Perhaps we need to edit step #3 to remind us the Internet does not own us. We CAN refrain from using nonsensical acronyms like “IMNSHO”; we CAN use capitalization responsibly; we CAN teach our children how to spell (or at the very least, teach them how to use a spell checker).