technologyvirtual children by Scott Warnock


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On her birthday, the daughter of a friend of mine came to him in a tizzy. You see, she explained, so-and-so was disrespecting her on Facebook. My friend geared up for the worst as he went with her to view the offending post. And there he saw it. Someone had posted this on her homepage: “happy birthday.”

He peered at the screen, looking I guess for maybe an animated devil or something to leap out at him. But all he saw was this: “happy birthday.” He checked the calendar. Yes, it was her birthday. So what was the problem?

His daughter, reaching exasperation at an emotional speed only achieved by teenage girls interacting with their parents, pointed out that the post “happy birthday” from someone — I forget the complex relationship web of who knew who here, but it was something like a friend’s ex-boyfriend’s sister — in lower case without the exclamation point was not a genuine wishing of goodwill. It was a snub, a dismissive gesture.

Dad, being a good dad, tried to digest this, and then tried to calm her perhaps overreaction (treading lightly in this area, though) by raising what he thought was an excellent point. He pointed out that he, dad, could easily have done the same thing, hastily typing “happy birthday” to her — and meaning every little drop of joy in the word “happy.”

Of course, dad, she said, moving now at warp speed beyond exasperation to disdain, it’s excusable by you, because you’re a, pff, grown up. You don’t know the rules. In other words, you’re just blundering around Facebook anyway, so writing that is the equivalent of broccoli in your teeth or toilet paper on your shoe can be forgiven.

Okay, he got it. So dad left this little encounter, maybe a little wiser, and later told me the story. What struck me about it is not that it’s another marker of the big generational gap with technology or even how extremely sensitive teenage girls are. I’m interested in this because his daughter was probably right: A post like that probably is intentional, designed to achieve the effect it did and doing so with a sly, subtle bit of language play.

With her rightness as the premise, this little incident made me think again about all those people who are so worried that texting and Facebook are destroying kids’ ability to write. Lots of older folks who mash a few words themselves have become vocal linguistic reactionaries, describing the seemingly inevitable decline of language caused by technology. And it’s bad enough that teachers, bakers, and insurance executives are decrying the language skills of children, but in this article, “Hammering grammar in the age of texting,” even some of the kids pile on themselves. As one high school freshman said, “Texting affects us a lot. I get so used to texting that I mess up a lot of easy words.”

Maybe this kid is correct about his own writing behaviors, but my friend’s tale shows how our young Web scribes are often way more clever language-wise than we give them credit for. But I already knew this. I teach writing online, at Drexel, and I have read tens of millions of words written by my students. I see very few glitches, errors, and shortcuts that are clearly connected to their texting habits. Very, very few. Why? The reasons are many, but I can tell you this: I ask them not to, and these sharp Drexel students are quite capable of switching out of that technology coding when they need to.

Of course, students do make some writing errors. They always have, and they always will. That’s why they take writing courses. But when I heard the tale of my friend’s daughter, I’m struck by how far we are from the kind of complete language degradation predicted by alarmists. We might not always like what they’re doing with language, but their errors are not always the result of ignorance, and instead of lazily pecking away, they are making some very savvy rhetorical choices.

Indeed, these kids can be so sophisticated in their writing that “Happy Birthday!” and “happy birthday” mean extraordinarily different things. At the juncture of language and technology, they are creating meaning using differences as small as case and punctuation.

These kids are, basically, writing so much and practicing becoming skilled rhetoricians. I guess the grammar guardians are fearful that they will put “u” instead of “you” in their college entrance essay and thus spoil their chances of getting into an elite college like EZU — we know those EZUites aren’t going to tolerate this kind of thing — but, as I said, I see them as being quite able, when asked, to shift from texting and Facebook-ese into formal written discourse rapidly, effectively, and fluidly based on their analysis of audience, purpose, and context.

When I think of my friend’s justifiable annoyed daughter, I believe these kids’ immersion in text-based dialogue helps them become skilled users, and perhaps lovers, of language. And even if they don’t always use their powers for good (I’ll pick up that topic later), they are probably better at communicating in writing and certainly way more conscious of written language than the folks of my generation ever were. They can make a comma or exclamation point do an almost poetic amount of work.

But maybe you are sitting back, scoffing. Maybe you don’t agree with me. Well?

then have a nice day

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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3 Responses to “Punktuation”

  1. Great article, Scott. Your daughter is right about how “adults” are excused from these rules. There is an older gentleman from my church and ALL OF HIS EMAILS LOOK LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME. I understand that he is not yelling at me (which is what I would assume if a student wrote to me in all caps), but rather just doesn’t know how to turn off his caps lock or thinks it somehow is easier to read that way. I would probably address a student regarding his/her tone in an email with CAPS.

    Have you see this: Your article made me think of it.

  2. This reminds me of when Elaine’s friend Myrah has a baby and her boyfriend of the moment doesn’t use an exclamation point when leaving her a message in Seinfeld. Great episode!

    I do agree that punctuation does play such a pivotal role in this new way of communication since we are removing the face to face aspect including speech.

    I will say, though, that in seeing so many facebook and comment posts at the end of artcles, there does seem to be a lack of basic english grammar and spelling. Sure some of it is due to the quickness of the post. But so many people don’t seem to know the difference between their and there or too and to and you can forget basic sentence structure. This is where I think people fear the younger generation not learning how to write.

    Great piece as always my friend.

  3. I am loving that we adults are leaving errors all over our compositions justifiably decrying the death of the English language in today’s youth. I hold a different view – as I have a father who also emails in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME. He decries the spoken word today saying that he cannot understand his grandchildren. My debate with him tends to center around the point that I likely could not today converse with my own grandfather (I’m not certain, I never got the opportunity on either side.)
    I tend to lump the pessimists who make these claims of ignorance about our younger generations as being those afraid of change. My father wants his verbiage, his language to be correct and popular because it is what he knows and feels comfortable using. But because his grandchildren do not follow his preferred verbiage 24 hours a day, he tunes them out as being unintelligible. There is no convincing him to what he is missing out on in not communicating in their preferred way.
    Being an evolutionist, I tend to think that adaptation is the key to survival and also loving to learn, I find today’s youth an inexhaustible source of new knowledge.
    Of course, being an -over user of exclamation points on Facebook I may be safe from offending…

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