Two weeks ago I gave a talk to a group of University of Michigan at Ann Arbor undergraduates called “Txtng and the Future of English.” As a linguist who studies the history of the English language, I reassured the students that they are not ruining the English language, no matter what they hear from their parents or teachers or other trustworthy and concerned authorities. Some of the students looked gratified by this alternate perspective; others looked skeptical.
The changes in written English—and to a lesser extent spoken English—caused by texting and other electronically mediated communication (EMC) strike me as more interesting than worrisome. All living languages change, a fact that has worried people for generations. Benjamin Franklin’s distaste for the verbs colonize and notice now seems quaint. The recent rise of LOL and the verb friend seem to many less quaint.
We didn’t start talking or writing like the telegraph more than a 150 years ago, and we’re not going to start speaking or writing entirely in acronyms and other abbrevs now.
The “entirely” in that previous sentence is important. Savvy EMC users have developed a set of written conventions that usefully serve their purposes when texting, instant messaging, Facebook posting, and the like. There’s a myth out there that students are now turning in formal essays filled with these same conventions; in 20 years of university teaching, I’ve never seen one. College students seem to have a strong sense about when EMC language is appropriate and when it is not, and they consider it very uncool to use EMC language in inappropriate places. (I will return to younger students in a moment.)
It is also pretty uncool, students stress, not to be adept at the written conventions of EMC if you are going to text, instant message, Facebook post, and the like. One student noted that his dad texts like a junior-high-school airhead. His dad, it appears, doesn’t yet have control of the stylistic choices that constitute “sophisticated texting.” For several semesters now, I have asked students to compile with me a list of EMC etiquette rules, and I am struck by how detailed, creative, and consistent the rules are. Anyone who says that text language is chaotic isn’t paying enough attention to the system of rules that users have developed to move real-time conversation into written form.
While punctuation marks are used differently from formal writing, they have developed highly conventional functions in EMC. For example, to show an action happening, a writer can use two double colons (::banging head against wall::) or two asterisks (*sigh*). To elicit a response if someone is taking too long to text back, ellipses (…), a single question mark (?), or a combination of the two (…?) can do the trick. There are important and subtle distinctions between “ok.” (acknowledgement), “ok!” (agreement), and “ok…” (potential disagreement). And the asterisk (*) has been mobilized as a way to send a follow-up text to correct a typo. (Texters still do care about spelling.)
LOL no longer means ‘laughing out loud’ (so the OED gets credit for including LOL in the third edition, but the definition is already out of date). To show laughter, EMC now often relies on “hahaha” (students tell me that you need at least three ha’s to show laughter if they are not capitalized). LOL is now a way to flag that a message is meant to be funny (similar to jk—‘just kidding’) or to signal irony. LOL can also be a way to acknowledge that a writer has received a text—a written version of a nod of the head and a smile (“a chuckle at most,” one student told me).
This is just the tip of the iceberg of the many rules students tell me about. The point is that there is a detailed set of conventions that young speakers and writers have mastered to be effective EMC users. That younger students might mistakenly slip into texting language in a more formal paper, especially if it is typed online, is not surprising to me; part of elementary and secondary education is learning how to navigate between spoken language and written language, as well as among different levels of formality and different registers in each. School is designed to help students learn to do this navigation more effectively and more knowledgeably.
I want to conclude by explaining what I mean by “knowledgeably” because this is a point that I’ll be coming back to in future posts. It is a shame that we don’t give students credit for all the knowledge of written conventions that they already have, as a way to build toward the acquisition of new written conventions. When I do the etiquette-rule exercise with college students, they are struck by how much implicit knowledge they have of EMC conventions—and how they judge others who do not yet adhere to the conventions effectively. I note for them that the conventions of formal academic writing are just another set of rules for writing well in a specific register—maybe not as “fun” as EMC but not in any way an alien exercise.
Why not do this with students earlier in their education? Such an activity empowers students by articulating explicitly the knowledge they bring with them, and builds a bridge to what can otherwise seem like an unfamiliar activity: learning the conventions of formal academic prose. In comparing EMC with other kinds of writing, we can deliver lessons about punctuation use, question formation, sentence structure/fragments, and so on while making language and “grammar” education fun, exploratory, and participatory. We can recognize what students know as well as what they have yet to learn about the choices they make as writers to communicate effectively in different spaces.
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