P is for #Picky: Are Millennials Obsessed with Language?

October 12, 2015 | By Nick Patch

It’s time to have a word about millennials.

In defiance of conventional kids-these-days grumbling, two recent studies have indicated that the millennial generation — roughly defined as those born between 1982 and 2004 — may be more obsessed with the integrity of the written word than their elders.

First, an online Harris Poll found that adults aged 18-34 are considerably more likely to be bothered by misspellings and improper grammar on social media, by a measure of 74 per cent compared to 59-64 per cent for all older age groups. And when it comes to spoken flubs, millennials have, well, no chill: 63 per cent of adults aged 18-34 feel compelled to point out mispronunciations, compared to a mere 28 per cent among those aged 65 and up.

Next, a Pew Research Center poll further cemented the millennials’ comparatively robust literacy, finding that 88 per cent of Americans under 30 read a book last year, compared to 79 per cent of the rest of the population. The under-30 set was also more likely to have used a library.

The fact that millennials have no tolerance for the syntax-lax comes as no surprise to Eli Burnstein.

Since May, the 28-year-old has organized monthly spelling bees at the Ossington — though he’s christened the event, with typical millennial linguistic playfulness, the Spelling Bae.

And it does get heated.

“People definitely get agitated, which is part of the fun,” Burnstein said. “But people recognize it’s quite addictive. If they’re really upset, I’ll give them their dollar back.”

The boozy contests average about 30 participants, with many more humiliation-averse spectators showing up to watch, not spell. Controversies have sprung up around Burnstein’s pronunciations (“eschew” being particularly contentious) and his word selections, with competitors recently chafing over “sheaf” and “soliloquy” being included in a preliminary round.

Obviously, Burnstein’s audience takes spelling seriously. His core demographic is 25-35-year-olds, and he can only theorize on his generation’s linguistic fascination.

“With non-stop texting and messaging, we’re actually doing a lot more communicating in writing than orally, as opposed to previous generations,” he said.

Given the popular perception of millennials as participation trophy-fattened meme fiends bastardizing the language 140 characters at a time, the preponderance of young word nerds may surprise some.

“I think it’s worth considering that this is a generation that’s more educated,” said Neil Howe, the American author widely credited with coining the term “millennial” in his book with William Strauss, Generations: The History of America’s Future.

“More of them have gone to college, a lot of them work every day in jobs where they have to read all the time — and not just on the Internet, but they’re huge book readers.”

That obsession with language is also evident in the pace of linguistic innovation. The millennial generation is hardly the first to sling its own slang, but what fascinates observers is how quickly young people cannibalize their own newly crafted lingo.

“As soon as an acronym appears (and) you go on websites like Urban Dictionary, what always amazes me is the most popular definition of a word is someone excoriating the expression,” Howe said.

“I’m always interested in how self-immolating millennials are toward their own expressions. It’s not as though they think, ‘this is just the coolest thing.’”

“They’re absolutely more aware of trends when it comes to language, and ensuring that they’re communicating in a way that’s relevant,” agreed Amber Mac, president of Konnekt Digital Engagement.

“It changes pretty much on a monthly basis, as far as how they’re expressing themselves.”

Well, if anyone’s still using “YOLO” as a Drake-approved alternative to “carpe diem,” a word of grammatical advice from a millennial stickler: it should really be “YLOO.”

Spelling Bae list

  • Sphygmomanometer: the longest word ever issued in a Spelling Bae
  • Ophthalmologist: the second-longest word ever issued in a Spelling Bae
  • Verisimilitude, dilettante, gesundheit, arrhythmia, millennial: words that have been misspelled during a Spelling Bae
  • Seven: number of rounds in the longest Spelling Bae, not counting back-and-forth spell-offs
  • Matt Michels: one of Spelling Bae’s top competitors, who has finished first, second and third in past events


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