Is _____ a Word?

Key Takeaways:

  • Nearly 80% of respondents believed it was essential to learn and use proper English in general. Baby boomers were more likely to think so while Gen Z respondents were less likely. 
  • Respondents believed Facebook (49%) was the most detrimental to the English language, followed by Instagram (37%) and Tik Tok (34%).
  • 51% of respondents still felt optimistic about the future of the English language. Gen Z respondents were more likely to feel this way (63%), while baby boomers were not (37%).

The Ever-Changing Landscape of the English Language

Shakespeare is probably rolling in his grave considering how drastically the English language has changed over the years. The term ‘proper English,’ meaning speaking or writing without grammatical errors or usage of slang, is nearly an afterthought (at least on social media and in regards to text messaging). 

We’ve surveyed 1,030 people to learn more about their opinion on the evolution (or decay, some might argue) of the English language. How important do they think it is to learn and practice ‘proper English’? What are some words that are or are not appropriate to officially add into existing dictionaries? Can respondents accurately define popular slang terminology? To learn more about the state of words in our society, read on!

Keeping It Old School

Naturally, nearly 80% of respondents believed it was essential to learn and use proper English in general. Of them, baby boomers felt the strongest about it, whereas Gen Zers cared the least.

As we know, the prevalence of text messaging and social media has created a whole new form of dialogue, involving a lot of slang, abbreviations, and general incoherence (especially for older generations). According to our respondents, Facebook was the most detrimental to the English language, followed by other popular social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube. Over 20% of Gen Zers didn’t think any of these platforms were actively ruining English as we know it, and interestingly, they are also the generation that uses it the most.

When actually encountering an example of poor English, the most likely place to find them was on popular social platforms, but people also picked up on some in their own neighborhood and social circles. While over a quarter of Americans have been exposed to slang terms that they don’t know the meaning of, 51% of people still felt optimistic about the future of the English language – Generation Z was quite hopeful (63%), while baby boomers were not (37%).

To Add or Not to Add

On average, respondents thought a word should be used regularly for six years before claiming a spot in the dictionary. Over half also believed that acronyms (e.g., NASA) deserved to be in them, followed by colloquialisms (e.g., rain check, ride shotgun); popular abbreviations for other words (e.g., approx., vs.); slang (e.g., salty, but in reference to someone who is bitter about something); and words made up by authors or songwriters (e.g., YOLO, meaning ‘You Only Live Once,’ a famous term coined by artist Drake).

Also, there are certain words that people think deserve to already be in our dictionaries, many having gained traction from social media and general texting lingo. People wanted the word ‘emoji’ in the dictionary the most, and considering over 10 billion of them are sent around the internet each day, the support to make it an ‘official’ word is unsurprising. In comparing genders, it was discovered that women’s top choices of words that belong in the dictionary were ‘emoji’ (69%) and ‘selfie’ (67%), while men were more likely to vouch for ‘twerk’ (39%) and ‘noob’ (34%).

Meanwhile, over half of respondents were against including the term ‘Yas,’ used to express one’s excitement, in dictionaries. Over 40% also didn’t like the idea of the words ‘bae,’ ‘adorbs,’ ‘schmoozefest,’ and ‘YOLO’ in official print either.

A Learning Process

Amidst a casual conversation, 60% of respondents said they understood the term ‘basic’ well enough to use it, and over half felt the same about the words ‘canceled’ and ‘ghost.’ ‘Basic’ was also the most used slang in conversations, followed by ‘vibe’ – Gen Zers were much more likely than the older generations to use these.

Just because someone felt like they could comfortably engage in a conversation while using slang words like the ones just mentioned, doesn’t mean they actually knew the true meaning of them. For example, a quarter of baby boomers reported using the word ‘snack’ when talking to someone more than any other generation. When asked to describe the term, one male baby boomer explained how the word symbolized a small quantity of food eaten outside of normal meal hours, when in reality, the slang term instead describes an attractive person.

The Test

For some of the most popular slang terms used these days, respondents from varying generations were asked to define them to the best of their ability. For the most part, the terms ‘basic,’ ‘vibe,’ and ‘canceled’ were understood by everyone, from Gen Z to baby boomers. The term ‘ghost’ bamboozled one Gen X man, though, as he described it as a spiritual entity instead of the actual meaning, which has to do with suddenly cutting off communication with someone. They, along with baby boomers, were also stumped by the term ‘tea,’ both defining it as either a hot drink or a marijuana leaf, as opposed to its true slang definition, being another word for gossip.

The term ‘snack’ also flew over baby boomers’ heads – in fact, not a single one of them knew what the slang version of the word meant. Seeing as people aged 65 and older use the internet much less than their younger counterparts do, their unfamiliarity with some of these terms is unsurprising and, quite frankly, expected.

Keeping up With the Times

To no one’s surprise, most respondents believed it was vital for people to learn how to speak English properly. While this is a nice thought, social media has led to the creation of a lot more slang and generally ‘lazy’ lingo that some are used to. Out of all the platforms, Facebook was the one most riddled with improper English. Also, respondents were split on what kind of words should be allowed in the dictionary and which should absolutely never find themselves among its pages.

Even though some were opposed to new slang terms popping up into our everyday conversations, most were confident that they were able to keep up and understand what these words meant. While this was a nice thought, baby boomers in particular struggled the most with correctly identifying which terms meant what. If they want to keep up with the times, and even discover new words, heading over to word.tips, the most popular unscrambler for Scrabble and Words with Friends, is a great place to start to boost your vocabulary to new heights. You can also find a bunch of word games on the website to test your knowledge and keep those mental gears turning!

Methodology and Limitations

We surveyed 1,030 people from different generations on their sentiments of how the English language has evolved. Among them, 50% were women, 49% were men, and 1% identified as nonbinary.

For generation breakdowns, the sample sizes were as follows:

  • Baby boomers: 150
  • Generation X: 304
  • Millennials: 405
  • Generation Z: 156
  • Other: 15

For short, open-ended questions, outliers were removed. To help ensure that all respondents took our survey seriously, they were required to identify and correctly answer an attention-check question.

These data rely on self-reporting by the respondents and are only exploratory. Issues with self-reported responses include, but aren’t limited to, exaggeration, selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and bias. All values are based on estimation.